Recent Repatriations and the Parthenon Marbles


The TimesOnline had an article last week by Ben Macintyre tying in the recent repatriations and criminal trials in Italy and Greece to the Parthenon Marbles (or the Elgin Marbles as they are often referred to). Here’s an excerpt:

The return to Greece of a spectacular Macedonian gold wreath from the 4th century BC may lead to the repatriation of several looted artefacts worth millions of pounds.

Court cases in Italy and Greece are increasing the pressure on museums around the world and could lead to widespread changes in the handling of ancient treasures.

The campaign to return stolen work to its country of origin has emboldened Costas Karamanlis, the Prime Minister of Greece, to predict that Britain will soon be forced to surrender the Elgin Marbles. Also at stake are hundreds of statues, bronzes, engravings and other artworks from museums in Europe, the US and Japan.

At the heart of this revolution is the landmark case of the funerary wreath, one of the most beautiful surviving examples of ancient craftsmanship, which was looted from Greece more than ten years ago. A delicate spray of gold leaves interwoven with coloured glass paste, the wreath was probably designed as a funeral gift and made soon after the death of Alexander the Great.

It was put on display in Greece for the first time this week after a long campaign to persuade the J. Paul Getty Museum, in California, to return it to its homeland.

Mr Karamanlis welcomed its return as evidence that Britain would soon be forced to relinquish the Elgin Marbles, which were acquired by the British diplomat Lord Elgin between 1801 and 1810 and are currently housed in the British Museum. Britain has argued that they are better preserved in London (continue reading).

These repatriations are an important step, and are an example of stronger action by both Greece and Italy. However, the Vatican is expected to announce that it will refuse to return some fragments of the Parthenon. Parts of the Parthenon are spread all over Europe, including London, Rome, Copenhagen, Berlin.

I was at the British Museum a few weeks ago, and I was reminded how impressive the sculptures still are, even though they are broken and decontextualized. It would be very exciting to see all of the sculptures collected in Athens for display. However, people all over Europe can view parts of them at present, and there is a value in that as well I suppose. In the end, I seriously doubt whether the British Museum will ever relinquish the marbles.

The case for their return seems much different from the gold wreath which the Getty just returned and from the trial of Marion True. The argument for their return is only ethical or moral, there is no legal claim to them which Greece could hope to assert.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Marion True on Trial in Greece as Well


The New York Times devotes an article to bail being set in another trial of former Getty curator Marion True in Greece yesterday. The trial involves this greek funerary wreath, allegedly removed from the country 15 years ago. The Getty agreed on Dec. 11 of last year to return the wreath to Greece. I discussed that decision earlier here. The NYT reports that in total, five people have been charged in the case, “Ms. True… two Greeks accused of digging up the wreath in northern Greece, Georgios Tsatalis and Georgios Kagias; L. J. Kovacevic, a Serbian national accused of putting them in touch with a middleman; and Christoph Leon, a Swiss-based antiquities dealer who sold the wreath to the Getty in 1993 for $1.1 million.”

True faces a potential 10 year prison term. I found the comments of the investigating magistrate Apostolos Zavitsanos quite interesting, “The wreath’s value of over a million dollars determined the nature of charges brought against Ms. True.” Why do prosecutors use the monetary value of an object to ascertain the seriousness of a crime in this context? It seems to run contrary to the underlying rationales for nationalization of antiquities and restrictions on their export. These restrictions are based on the idea that the important loss which occurs is to the archaeological context, and not the loss of the actual object. If Greece were simply concerned with the loss of beautiful objects, why not just dig up the whole peninsula? Sentencing should also incorporate how much knowledge was lost as a result of the looting in my view.

True has been understandably upset in recent weeks. Back in December, Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino of the LA Times managed to uncover a bitter letter written by True to the Getty Trust. True argued that her supervisors were aware of her acquisitions, and were fully appraised of the itinerant risks. The LAT quotes her letter, “Once again you have chosen to announce the return of objects that are directly related to criminal charges filed against me by a foreign government…without a word of support for me, without any explanation of my role in the institution, and without reference to my innocence.” Though the increasing number of criminal charges leveled at her seem to render her cries of innocence increasingly desperate, I can see her point.

It seems as if True was not doing anything much different from other curators and purchasers during this period. The one difference may have been that the vast funds at the Getty’s disposal dictated that she would buy more objects . The trials will show whether she violated Italian and Greek law; however it makes me uncomfortable when a few members of a group are targeted as examples, while others go unpunished. The flaw occurs across many areas of the law, but seems more acute when we think about cultural property. Successful prosecutions are few and far between.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Greek Archbishop asks Pope Benedict for a piece of the Acropolis

I missed this last week, but Greek Archbishop Christodoulos, in his first official visit to the Vatican, asked Pope Benedict XVI to return a piece of the Parthenon currently housed in the Vatican Museums. Benedict was initially confused by the request, perhaps because he was not aware of the piece. The Pope said he would consider the request. The push is part of an ongoing Greek effort to seek the return of the various pieces of the Parthenon. A comment on this blog last week suggested that Greece is trying to work slowly, and regain the smaller pieces first, from sources which might be more inclined to Greece’s requests. The idea makes sense, and is probably the best strategy for Greece to pursue. If they can gather momentum from all of these smaller bits and pieces, perhaps pressure will mount on the British Museum to return their Parthenon sculptures. It’s an interesting strategy, but I’m not sure anything can be done to persuade the British Museum to relinquish the marbles.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Getty Set to Return Gold Funerary Wreath? (UPDATED)

The New York Times today cites an anonymous source who claims that the Getty Museum has agreed to return this 4th-century B.C. gold funerary wreath to Greece. A press conference has been scheduled at noon in Athens to announce the agreement. The Getty first acquired the wreath in 1993, but there has been a growing body of evidence presented to the institution that the wreath was unearthed by a farmer in 1990 near Serres, in Northern Greece, and entered the market through Switzerland and Germany. The agreement may also involve a 6th-century B.C. marble statue, which has also been claimed by Italy. As I’ve written earlier, the Getty has agreed to return 26 objects out of 52 claimed by Italy, after negotiations between the two broke down. The fact that both Italy and Greece are claiming the object cuts against both nation’s arguments, though it seems Italy has since abandoned its claim to the statue.

Perhaps the Greek Culture Minister Georgios Voulgarakis’ address to the UN General Assembly, might have been planned to set the stage for today’s announcement. It might also indicate increasingly close ties between Greece and Italy. The Greeks seem to be adopting some of the more aggressive repatriation strategies employed by their neighbors. In the NYT, Voulgarakis has outlined an accord between Italy and Greece which would form a united cultural policy, and could even help the countries pursue claims jointly. The new Italian strategy employs prosecutions, public pressure, and bilateral agreements with transit states like Switzerland as well as market states like the US or UK. Interestingly, the headlines have been made, and repatriation has occurred not by using International Treaties, such as the 1970 UNESCO Convention, but by working with individual nations and employing existing domestic law. It’s not clear either how much today’s announcement will impact a potential prosecution of former Getty curator Marion True in Greece. She is currently on trial in Rome.

It will be interesting to watch how successful this Greek/Italian cultural alliance will actually be. Public opinion seems to be favoring their position at this point, but Voulgarakis may want to be a bit more diplomatic about his public comments if he wants that to continue. In the NYT, he says that “…the Parthenon frieze has to be reunified, otherwise it has no historical value.” I can certainly appreciate the Greek desire to have the Parthenon sculptures returned, and they have a number of good claims, but the idea that they have no historical value hanging in the British Museum is simply preposterous, and does not strike me as a particularly useful way to conduct negotiations.

I would like to know more about how this object was found. If it was a chance find, that might make for a slightly different situation than occurs when individuals simply dig into tombs or other cultural sites. Chance finds are a point of contention, as internationalists point out that restraints on alienation of cultural property do not satisfactorily deal with them.

UPDATE:

The AP is now reporting that the Getty Museum has indeed announced it will return the funerary wreath, along with the marble statue. An agreement has been reached in principle, but details have yet to be released. It’s still not clear whether the agreement will impact any potential criminal charges.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

UN General Assembly Adopts a Greek Cultural Property Resolution


Earlier this week, the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution tabled by Greece on “The Return or Restitution of Cultural Property to their Countries of Origin”. The resolution lacks any real bite, as most resolutions of the General Assembly are symbolic in nature. However, it does indicate continued pressure by the Greeks on foreign nations to seek the return of Greece’s cultural property. Most notably, the Parthenon sculptures, or Elgin marbles as they are often referred to in the UK.

The Greek culture minister, George Voulgarakis hailed the initiative as “an exceptionally important event”. Discussing the Parthenon Marbles, he said “The adoption of this resolution in itself signals and guides the countries to help so that the antiquities from all over the world will return to their homes. Greece will always seek and strive, in that direction, for the return of the Parthenon Marbles to their rightful place”.

A great deal has been written about the Parthenon Marbles, and whether they should remain in the UK, or return to Greece. One noted scholar in this field, John Merryman, has argued that the sculptures should stay in the British Museum, because they have been resting there peacefully for nearly 200 years. The debate is an emblematic one in many ways for the two primary schools of thought on cultural policy, the cultural nationalists and internationalists. This discussion by the Greek minister of culture seems an effort to try to continue to pressure the UK into returning the sculptures. Perhaps he is learning some lessons from the Italians and their aggressive recent efforts at repatriation, though I think forcing the British Museum to share some or all of the sculptures will truly be a herculean task.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

More Problems for Marion True and the Getty


The New York Times reports this morning that the Getty Museum has unilaterally decided to break off talks with the Italian Culture Ministry, and return 26 artifacts to Italy. Italy still wants the return of 27 other objects. One of the works is this piece, “Table Support in the Shape of Griffins Attacking a Doe”, dating from the 4th Century BC. The background for these negotiations is the trial of former Getty Curator Marion True and art dealer Robert Hecht in Rome. If Italy is still unsatisfied with the Getty’s decision to repatriate only some of the antiquities, they may try to put pressure on Federal Prosecutors to bring charges against True in the US under the National Stolen Property Act (NSPA).

Greek authorities have decided to follow their Italian counterparts, and have decided to bring charges against True as well, as reported by Reuters. This might be related to the Greek seizures on the Greek Islands known as the Small Cyclades, which took place in April of this year. I discussed them earlier here.

Despite True’s resignation, her aggressive acquisition policy still seems to be causing problems for the Getty, the richest art institution in the world. Italy and Greece are attempting to send a powerful message with these trials: dealing in unprovenanced antiquities will not be tolerated. It remains to be seen though if a conviction will take place in either trial.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Greek Investigation


I’m a bit late on this story, but on Tuesday, the Greek Culture Minister, George Voulgarakis issued a statement calling an antiquities ring investigation one of the most “complex in recent memory”. The bust came on the small island of Schinoussa, pictured here. It’s one of many islands in the Aegean, which has historically had some notoriety for being a haven for pirates and other criminals.

The original discovery came in April of this year. There are indications that this investigation may have some links to the trial of Marion True, who is on trial in Rome on charges of conspiring to traffic in stolen antiquities. The raid turned up a wealth of objects, including the ancient, early Christian, and byzantine eras. The owner of the villa is Despina Papadimitriou, a member of a prominent Greek shipping family whose late brother, Christos Michailidis, was an antiquities dealer. Another house was searched, on a neighboring island,which was owned by Marion True.

The outcome of this investigation remains to be seen. However, it does reiterate, at least anecdotally, the size of the illicit market in antiquities.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com