March 13, 2009

Bulgarian court rules on looted artefact

Posted at 5:48 pm in Greece Archaeology, Similar cases

A court in Bulgaria has ruled to allow the confiscation of some Byzantine plates currently in Greek Museums that they believe were obtained from illegal excavations. Greece is normally on the other side of disputes such as this – it will be interesting to see if they apply the same rationale to their response as they do to their own restitution requests.

Balkan Travellers
12 March 2009
Bulgarian court ruling

A Bulgarian court recently ruled for the confiscation of the nine Byzantine plates purchased by three Greek museums in Greece in 2004.

The confiscation is possible on the basis of a special EU law, which Greece has not yet adopted, according to the Kathimerini newspaper.

Bulgaria argues that the Byzantine treasure, which dates to the twelfth century, was acquired during illegal excavations in 1999 and then smuggled out of the country. Greece, on the other hand, asserts the three museums purchased the plates from a Greek collector in London with money donated by citizens, including Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis, and supplied by the Ministy of Culture.

According to the publication, the museums have not yet stated their official position as they will first agree on it with the ministries of foreign affairs and culture.

As reported in September 2008, the dispute over the ownership of the plates caused them to be excluded from Europe’s biggest Byzantine-themed exhibition of the last 50 years – Byzantium 330-1453, which is displayed at London’s Royal Academy of Arts until March 22.

The Byzantine Heritage Museum in Thessaloniki, the Benaki Museum and the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens each display three of the nine silver plates decorated with gold filigree.

In July of 2007, Bulgaria lodged an official demand with Greek authorities to return the plates, saying they were illegally excavated near the town of Pazardzhik in central Bulgaria and smuggled out in 2000-2001. Greece, which claims that the acquisition was not illegal, purchased the set for 2,200,200 euro in 2004, following considerable international publicity, which it now uses in its defence.

This kind of dispute is not a rare for Greece, although the country is usually on its opposite side. In the last couple of decades, as reported here, the country has continuously protested against the British Museum’s ownership of the so-called Elgin Marbles – a collection of statues from the Parthenon in Athens, and argued for their return.

Although Greece has gone as far as constructing a new museum to house the statues in case they are returned, it has not yet managed to procure them.

A more successful case where Greece demanded – and received, the return of artefacts was the 2007 re-acquisition from the Getty Museum in the Los Angeles of objects, including an ancient gold wreath, that were illegally excavated and smuggled before they were purchased by the museum.

Last February, as reported, Greece returned two ancient marble statues of Artemis and Apollo to Albania, whose territory they were stolen from, in a gesture of good faith and as part of its broader campaign against the illegal acquisition of antique objects.

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