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Greece asked to return looted artefact

This case is unusual, inasmuch as the fact that Greece is on the opposite side of the argument to usual [1].

Balkan Travellers [2]

Silver Plates Owned by Greece and Claimed by Bulgaria Will Not Participate in Byzantium Art Show
10 September 2008

The Greek-owned Byzantine set, consisting of nine silver plates dating to the twelfth century, will not participate in Europe’s biggest Byzantine-themed exhibition of the last 50 years, Greek media reported today.

The plates will not be among the 100 artefacts that Greece contributes to the show because the dispute with Bulgaria, which has laid legal claims over the set, has not been settled yet, according to the Ta Nea newspaper.

The exhibition, titled Byzantium 330-1453 will be displayed at London’s Royal Academy of Arts between October 25 and March 22, 2008, as BalkanTravellers.com reported in April.

With the participation of 20 countries and 72 museums and after 2.5 years of preparation, the exhibition will present a showcase of Byzantine art and culture through 400 pieces from collections in Europe and the US.

Excluded from the show are the nine, Greek-owned, silver plates decorated with gold filigree, measuring between 26 and 33 centimetres in diameter. Currently the Byzantine Heritage Museum in Thessaloniki, the Benaki Museum and the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens each display three plates of the set.

The reason for their exclusion from the international exhibition in London is the fact that the legal claims filed by Bulgaria have not been settled yet. In July of 2007, the country 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 2003, following considerable international publicity, which it 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 BalkanTravellers.com reported in February, 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.

In February, as BalkanTravellers.com 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.

It remains to be seen how the dispute over the Byzantine plates between Bulgaria and Greece will pan out. What is certain, however, is that the international public is deprived of seeing the ancient treasure while the two countries settle it.