Armed Antiquities Theft from the Greek Museum in Olympia

The Museum in Olympia, before the theft

There has been another museum theft in Greece. At 7.30 local time this morning two masked men overpowered a security guard and stole between 60-70 objects. The Museum guard was tied and gagged. The BBC reports that “the robbers – one of whom had a gun – targeted the guard during a shift change, after having already knocked out the alarm.” Most of the stolen items were small bronze, gold, and clay statuettes, which will be very easy to hide, and unfortunately easy to sell. The thieves were dressed in military fatigues, and were well-armed. Police have described it as a “well-calculated” hit. But other reports indicate the thieves spoke only broken Greek, and that they weren’t familiar with the museum, asking where objects like a gold wreath were, even though the museum had none of those objects.

This theft comes after the theft from the National Gallery in Athens, and amid protests and fires which have destroyed some buildings. It also has caused the Greek Culture Minister Pavlos Geroulanos to resign. Connections will be drawn to Greek austerity, but whether it was funding cutbacks which have made this theft possible has not been established. There was a breakdown of security here, and it may be that thieves saw the thefts in Athens and were brazened. A culture ministry official told the AP that the thieves “seem to have operated more as if they were carrying out a holdup”.

Yiannis Mavrikopoulos, head of the culture ministry museum and site guards’ union put the cutbacks squarely at the feet of the bodies urging Greek cutbacks: “The cutbacks imposed by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund have hurt our cultural heritage, which is also the world’s heritage . . . There are no funds for new guard hirings, . . . There are 2,000 of us, and there should be 4,000, while many have been forced to take early retirement ahead of the new program of layoffs. We face terrible staff shortages. As a result, our monuments and sites don’t have optimum protection – even though guards are doing their very best to protect our heritage. ”

  1. Robbery at Ancient Olympia museum, BBC, February 17, 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-17071934 (last visited Feb 17, 2012).
  2. Nicholas Paphitis, Museum robbed at Greece’s Ancient Olympia, Google News, February 17, 2012, http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5hueW4Ohi6iY0JYUbVnIZslcSHwoA?docId=f762a40068e9489dacd391175db3023e (last visited Feb 17, 2012).
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Art and Antiquities Crime Up 30% in Greece

“We have now come back, hiring just security personnel to man museums and archaeological sites. Well, doesn’t that prove our genuine conviction to safeguarding our cultural heritage?” 


So says Lina Mendoni, secretary general of the Greek Culture Ministry in response to questions that the Greeks aren’t paying enough to safeguard its sites. 


As protests continue to unfold in Greece, one report looks back at the theft of art from the Greek National Gallery in Athens. Anthee Carassava, reporting from Athens for the L.A. Times can’t help but to add a few glamorizing details to the theft. One of the thieves is a “virtuoso lock picker”. The thieves manipulated the security system and eluded the one guard on duty and stole works by Picasso (pictured here), Mondrian, and a sketch by Guglielmo Caccia. I’m always skeptical of reporting in one nation’s papers pointing fingers at the ineptness of another nation’s efforts to protect its heritage. This problem plagues loads of international reporting in places like Italy and also Greece. And even if we take the United States or United Kingdom, theft and looting takes place, and there aren’t enough security guards to police remote sites and small institutions, which results in the theft of objects. Market safeguards are unreliable, and the law enforcement framework all over the world is still developing. So when funding pressures and unrest take hold, there can be dire consequences for cultural security.

The theme of the report here ties the theft in this case to the wider theme of Greek austerity, and unrest.

Greece’s economic crisis has left the Culture Ministry desperately short of cash, resulting in a near-shutdown of scores of museums, dwindling archaeological work in various parts of the country and, in some cases, severe cutbacks in security. At the National Gallery, the curator acknowledged that although the safety of its collection “is not in peril,” budget cuts have scaled back security personnel by about 50% since 2010, leaving the country’s biggest storehouse of fine art with just 19 of the 37 guards it employed before the fiscal crisis.

. . .

Greece has never been a generous investor in culture. Even in the 1990s heyday of spendthrift policies, Athens allocated just 0.7% of the national budget for the promotion and preservation of Greece’s cultural inheritance. Now nearly bankrupt, the state has halved that figure to 0.35%, allotting 42% of that — about $173 million — to the operation and security of museums, monuments, monasteries and archaeological sites, according to the 2012 budget. Government officials are emphatic, however, that the financial crisis is not taking a toll on the safety of Greece’s fine art and antiquities.

. . .

About 1,900 government-paid guards protect more than 15,000 museums, monuments and archaeological sites across the country. Of these, 1,350 are full-time staff members; the rest are either contract employees hired during the peak tourist season or civil servants relocated from state corporations that the government shut down last year in a bid to slash public spending. “What am I supposed to do with a 63-year-old mechanic or bus driver who is clueless about antiquity and is just interested in clocking time until retirement?” asked Giorgos Dimakakos, the head guard at the Acropolis, Greece’s landmark monument. In recent months, Culture Ministry guards have heightened demands for permanent employment and an exemption from further austerity cuts, saying the government’s Band-Aid solutions to personnel shortages pose grave security and liability risks. With poverty levels rising and more than 100,000 businesses shuttered or close to bankruptcy, art and antiquities thefts are up by at least 30% in the last year, said Kouzilos of the special police unit. It’s hardly a surprise, then, to see a dramatic increase in small-time hoods and first-time crooks trying to join the ranks of seasoned art thieves.

I’d be interested in hearing how this security compares with even the ‘model’ in the rest of Europe or North America. I also wonder if it might be time to prepare a ‘red list’ of objects from Greece that the art market should report and flag.

  1. Anthee Carassava, Art heist robs Greece of a sense of security – latimes.com, L.A. Times, February 11, 2012, http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-greece-antiquities-20120212,0,3742515.story (last visited Feb 15, 2012).
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Update on the Athens Theft

This Picasso was given to Greece in 1949, because the Greeks resisted the Nazis
The Ink Drawing by Caccia 

No recovery or arrests yet, but there has been a little new information to shed light on the recent theft from the Athens’ National Gallery. Police have said that one man entered the National Gallery through a small balcony door, after he had deliberately and repeatedly set off alarms the night before, which led to a guard disabling one of the alarms. There has been speculation that Greek austerity and budget cuts contributed to the theft, which seems overblown and a bit unfair to the Greeks. Whenever a security breach or theft takes place, the museum looks bad. And whether budget cuts and poorly paid security played a role remains to be seen.

Greek authorities have said that the theft was probably done to benefit a private collector. That seems at this point to be speculation, and is an attractive, if unlikely motive for the theft. There just aren’t that many real-life versions of Dr. Julius No.

But there is a good idea about what uses these stolen works may be put to:

A 20th Century landscape by Piet Mondrian

 Dick Ellis, director of Art Management Group in England, who set up the art theft division for Scotland Yard more than 20 years ago, said there’s a good chance they will be recovered and, if not, used as collateral to fund other criminal enterprises. “Government indemnity doesn’t cover theft. They [thieves] are looking for a ransom route that is not going to be forthcoming. We’ll have to see the caliber of the criminal,” he told SETimes. “It’s obviously an important Picasso, and it adds to its prominence that it was given by the artist himself,” said Ellis, who recovered in Serbia two Picassos stolen from a Swiss museum five years ago. 

When a theft like this takes place, security is front and center, and the Greeks are noting that security was robust at the museum:

Niki Katsantonis, a spokeswoman for the culture ministry, told SETimes that “The National Gallery, as well as all the other museums and archaeological sites, are equipped with modern security systems,” and pointed out that there have been thefts at many other museums around the world. She said the gallery will build a 46.5m-euro extension this year with EU funds, an addition that “won’t just improve the grounds, but it will fortify them as well”. Police spokesman Athanassios Kokkalakis said, “These were no amateurs. Their moves and operation together were very well calculated. With the publicity this heist has received, it’s unlikely these works will ever make their way into the black market.” 

 Robert Wittman noted, “You can’t judge art only on the dollar value, but what it means to civilisation. Your biggest agony is if it is destroyed or damaged. . . . About 99.99% of the time they are not stolen to order, but on the ability of the thieves to go in and get them. Most of the time they will take what’s easy to get and carry. . . . If they get caught in an armed robbery or something else, they can use it to negotiate.”

  1. Andy Dabilis, Greek investigators search for missing masterpiece, January 13, 2012, http://setimes.com/cocoon/setimes/xhtml/en_GB/features/setimes/features/2012/01/13/feature-03 (last visited Jan 18, 2012).
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Looting with Dynamite in Greece

This is the first I’ve head of using dynamite like this to loot sites: six looters in northern Greece have been arrested for using dynamite at an archaeological site to search for gold:

Authorities said Thursday that the four Greek and two Albanian men were arrested Wednesday after police discovered a 12-meter (40-foot) tunnel blasted into the side of a mountain near the city of Kavala, 700 kilometres (435 miles) north of Athens. 
The tunnel, with support columns and a construction track, was first started in 2008, according to local police, who said the suspects would be charged with illegal excavation, illegal use and possession of explosives, and violating archaeological protection laws. 
Archaeological services would not comment on whether they believed there was buried gold in the area.
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Stolen Icons Discovered in London

Six stolen Byzantine-style icons have been discovered in London near the Greek embassy.

The plundered art was revealed after a telephone call from a woman claiming to recognise one of the icons – a famous rendition of the Virgin – on the website of the Temple gallery in west London.
Further investigation showed that the immaculately preserved gold-edged painting was among six icons reported missing from Greece that the specialist was selling for up to £5,000 each. 

Richard Temple, who owns the gallery and is acknowledged as London’s foremost dealer in icons, said that when he bought them he had “absolutely no reason” to suspect they were stolen. 

“I’ve been in the business for 51 years and I’m too well known as a gallery to take any risks at all,” he said. “We are an obvious target. We had gone through the correct protocols, but one has to have a certain amount of trust as business is conducted in good faith. I know the seller – he is somebody I deal with and I think he, in turn, was duped.” 

Upon presentation of documentation showing them on display in Greece, the art dealer voluntarily gave up his rights to the icons last week. “They left last Thursday in the hands of Scotland Yard,” he said. “It was very painful and unfortunate.”

So Mr. Temple blames the sale on another unnamed dealer, who was also “duped”. Another unfortunate example of incomplete history. If the dealer was in fact duped he would have a remedy against the unnamed dealer.

  1. Helena Smith, Stolen Greek relics found in London | Art and design | The Guardian, The Guardian, March 20, 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2011/mar/20/stolen-greek-relics-in-london (last visited Mar 21, 2011).
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Kimmelman on Drawing the Borders of Culture

Michael Kimmelman has a piece discussing the Parthenon sculptures and how it has influenced other repatriation debates.  He seems to favor a cosmopolitan approach, and borrows a good deal from James Cuno without mentioning him by name.  After all the mention of Cuno in some circles often shuts off any reasoned discourse.  And though he seems to be frustrated with his conclusion—that the Parthenon sculptures taken by Elgin should remain in London—he manages to make some thoughtful observations.  His best argument may be comparing the Euphronios Krater to the Parthenon sculptures:

And in the end patrimony is about ownership, often of objects that as in the marbles’ case, come from bygone civilizations. What, in this context, does it really mean to own culture?

Italy recently celebrated the return of a national treasure after the Metropolitan Museum gave back a sixth-century B.C. Greek krater by the painter Euphronius that tomb robbers dug up outside Rome during the 1970s. Stolen property is stolen property. But how curious that an ancient Greek vase, which centuries after it was made came into the possession of an Etruscan collector (a kind of ancient Elgin) living on what is now the outskirts of Rome, and then ended up buried for thousands of years below what became modern Italy, is today Italian cultural patrimony. By that definition, Elgin’s loot is arguably British patrimony.

Thought-provoking stuff, well worth a read. 

  1. Michael Kimmelman, Who Draws the Borders of Culture?, The New York Times, May 4, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/09/arts/09abroad.html?partner=rss&emc=rss&pagewanted=all (last visited May 6, 2010).
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Poggioli on the New Acropolis Museum

The Parthenon Gallery in the new Acropolis Museum

“Everyone understands what is missing”.

So says Naya Charmalia, a member of the New Acropolis Museum exhibition team, in a piece today for All Things Considered by Sylvia Poggioli:

Acropolis Museum director Dimitrios Pandermalis says his aim is to reunify the entire composition close to its original setting.
“We have from the same figure, half of the body in Athens, half of the body in London. We have a body in London and a head in Athens. We have horses in London, and the tails of the horses are in Athens. It is a moral problem in art of divided monuments,” he says.
British Museum officials concede that it could loan some of the sculptures, as long as Greece recognizes its ownership of the artifacts. It’s a proposal Pandermalis rejects.
“They don’t belong to the British, they don’t belong to us. They belong to history. They are not pieces of trade,” he says.
The campaign for the return of the sculptures is part of the international debate over ownership of cultural property.
For Greeks, the return of the Parthenon Marbles is an issue of national and cultural pride.
Maro Kakridi-Ferrari, professor in the philosophy department of Athens University, says the Parthenon — and what it symbolizes — were traumatized by the sculptures’ removal.
“They are the material proof of what democracy has built in Athens of the Classical period,” she says. “They are identified with the glory of ancient Greece, and they are part of the national identity.”

Poggioli Sylvia, Greece Unveils Museum Meant For ‘Stolen’ Sculptures, NPR.

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More Thoughts on the Parthenon Marbles

“[T]he collection is a miracle”. So writes Michael Kimmelman on the opening of the New Acropolis Museum in the NY Times. He notes:




Ownership remains the main stumbling block. When Britain offered a three-month loan of the marbles to the Acropolis Museum last week on condition that Greece recognizes Britain’s ownership, Mr. Samaras swiftly countered that Britain could borrow any masterpiece it wished from Greece if it relinquished ownership of the Parthenon sculptures. But a loan was out.
Pity. Asked whether the two sides might ever negotiate a way to share the marbles, Mr. Samaras shook his head. “No Greek can sign up for that,” he said.
Elsewhere, museums have begun collaborating, pooling resources, bending old rules. The British Museum, the [Met], the Louvre and other great public collectors of antiquity have good reason to fear a slippery slope if the marbles ever do go back, never mind what the Greeks say.

Pity indeed. Lee Rosenbaum argues today that such a loan would be difficult, More daunting than logistics of shuttling this monumental work back and forth is the issue of trust: The British Museum would need ironclad assurances that once the marbles were in Athens, they would be allowed to leave when the time came for their long-term London sojourn. I keep envisioning Elgin Marble Riots, with distraught Greeks hurling themselves in the path of transport trucks.”  
However one comes down on this issue, it really is true I think that we are all the poorer for the inability of both the Greeks and the British Museum to work together, because somehow and in some form the sculptures should be viewed together, as one unified work of monumental art.

Here is David Gill’s terrific video post on the Parthenon Marbles dispute:


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Hitchens on the Parthenon Marbles

A close-up of a Parthenon frieze.

Christopher Hitchens was interviewed this morning on NPR’s morning edition, arguing the Parthenon Marbles should be returned to Athens:

“If you can picture cutting the panel of the Mona Lisa in two and having half of it in Sweden and half of it in Portugal,” he says, “I think a demand would arise to have a look at what they look like if they were put together.”


Hitchens points out that other pieces of the Parthenon have been returned by the Vatican Museum, the Italian government and the University of Heidelberg in Germany. 

So far, officials at the British Museum have refused. 

According to a statement on its Web site, “The current division allows different and complementary stories to be told about the surviving sculptures, highlighting their significance for world culture and affirming the universal legacy of Ancient Greece.”

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More on the Parthenon Marbles

Det nye AkropolismuseumWith the opening of the Parthenon Museum coming soon, there was bound to be a great deal of discussion of the proper place for the sculptures, which always seems to return to the question of whether Lord Elgin’s taking of the sculptures 200 years ago was rightful, wrongful, illegal, unethical, or a combination of the above.  Part of this has taken the form of a back and forth over whether some kind of loan arrangement could be arranged between the Greeks and the British Museum.  The Guardian reports that the dispute has “indirectly dragged in the Queen, the Greek-born Duke of Edinburgh, and Gordon Brown.”  It also quotes Antonis Samaras, who rejected the very tentative loan proposals because they would somehow legitimize Elgin’s taking of the marbles. That is unfortunate I think, because focusing on the circumstances surrounding the taking are almost certainly going to prevent any kind of resolution to the dispute.

Three months won’t be enough to take them out of their boxes . . . .  As a time frame, it’s bizarre. And agreeing to the condition [of ownership] would be like sanctifying Elgin’s deeds and legitimising the theft of the marbles and the break-up of the monument 207 years ago. No Greek government could accept that.  For the first time, they are opening a window. They see they have to do something, now that the new museum is here.

Hannah Boulton, the British Museum spokeswoman clarified her earlie comments and responded to Samaras saying “It’s not the case that an offer to lend the Parthenon Sculptures was specifically made … It is clear from Mr Samaras’s statement that he does not recognise the British Museum’s legal ownership of the sculptures in our collection, which makes any meaningful discussion on loans virtually impossible.”

I inadvertently caused a minor stir among some commenters earlier this week, including Kwame Opoku when I argued that Greece has no tenable legal claim to the marbles.  By that I mean, if Greece were to bring suit againt the British Museum, its trustees, or even the Government, it would have absolutely no chance of succeeding in court, because far too much time has elapsed, and it is not clear I don’t think that the taking of the marbles was illegal under early 19th century legal principles.  I do not think any court would recognize the takign of the objects as theft, nor am I aware of any international agreements that would consider the removal of the sculptures as theft.  If they were taken today, sure, of course they would be theft because they would be owned by the Greek government; but that was not the legal situation 200 years ago.  As Damjan Krsmanovic points out at the Assemblage, such an examination leads to one obvious conclusion—that the ethics of the time were wrongheaded when viewed from today’s perspective, but that merely critcizing those actions does not get us any closer to where the marbles belong now. 

[I]n order to remove the marbles, Elgin needed to obtain a firman (a permit) from the Ottoman authority, which permitted him to remove any sculptures, inscriptions and the like as he saw fit. Because of the unwieldy size of some pieces, a number were sawn into sections for easier transportation. The use of contemporary ethics, which are a product of a particular context and time, is merely going to result in a biased perspective that nullifies the Ottoman law and Elgin’s actions, which are a product of a different social, cultural, and political context.

 We are left with a very heated, very emotional argument which seems unlikely to be resolved so long as both teh Greeks and the British Museum insist on a kind of public battle for popular opinion.  I think—and perhaps it is naive—that a better solution could be reached far sooner by a collaborative relationship, in which some or all of the marbles or even some other objects of antiquity are shared back and forth among the two nations. 
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