The Greek government is trying to create a Memorandum of Understanding with the US government to help prevent the looting of archaeological sites within Greece.
Say YES to Greece
The Hellenic Republic has requested a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that would require documentation for cultural objects coming into the United States that may have been illegally exported from Greece. This request is a substantial step toward enabling the US Government to help stop the looting of archaeological sites and cultural monuments of Greece.
Those who are opposed to this agreement have already made their voices heard on the State Department website established for comment on the MoU. We at SAFE feel strongly that the best way to understand objects of Greek history is within their archaeological, architectural and historical contexts, scientifically examined and professionally preserved. We know we are not alone and urge anyone interested in supporting the MoU with the Hellenic Republic to go join us and Say YES to Greece.
What is at stake?
The culture of ancient Greece stands at the historical, artistic, philosophical, scientific, literary and intellectual foundation of the West. Because of this, objects associated with ancient Greece are desired by collectors all over the world. A large number of the objects which fulfill the desires of these collectors have come, quite literally, from the Hellenic soil itself, dug out of fields, mountain villages, caves and coastal inlets all over Greece. Simply put, the material culture of the Hellenic Republic, including that of the Neolithic, Cycladic, Minoan, Mycenaean, Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic and Byzantine periods, continues to be habitually looted. Why? Because the market for these objects is robust.
Indeed, because of the unique record of original literary sources which survive from ancient Greece, archaeological finds from this land are often particularly rich and thrilling For instance, Thucydides, the great Greek historian of the 5th century BC, describes in book 4 of his History of the Peloponnesian War, a battle on the island of Sphacteria off the coast of Pylos during which the Athenians captured 292 Spartan soldiers. In the American School of Classical Studies’ excavations at the Athenian Agora, a bronze shield from one of these captured Spartan soldiers was discovered which had been displayed in the public square of ancient Athens, inscribed: “The Athenians (took this) from the Lacedaimonians at Pylos” (AJA 40 (1936), p. 189, fig. 2, no. 2). Rarely can archaeological remains so vividly enrich literature and history. Every tomb that is looted, every archaeological site which is destroyed eliminates the possibility of exactly this sort of excitement and enrichment to be enjoyed by the general public.
Greece’s cultural heritage endangered
The looting that continues in Greece today in order supply the illegal antiquities market is extensive. Below is a selection of evidence of looting from only the past five years. Looting for which there is no official evidence is immeasurable.
February 2010 – The owner of a cafeteria in eastern Athens arrested on charges of trading in illegal antiquities.
May 2010 – Greek men try to sell two looted 5th century Kouros statues
March 2010 – Greek police arrest two men trying to sell several artifacts, including a bronze sculpture of Alexander the Great from the 4th century BC.
January 2009 – Two men aged 53 and 49 have been arrested in Athens and charged with antiquities theft after a search of their car on Wednesday night revealed an Attic white lekythos dating to the Classical period.
January 2009 – Divers plunder Greece’s underwater antiquities.
February 2009 – Greek police arrested a veterinarian with more than 2,000 illegally excavated antiquities.
April 2009 – Police in Veria detain two Greek men on charges of illegally trading in antiquities, after finding six pieces of ancient marble columns in their possession.
May 2009 – a warrant was issued for the arrest of a man on charges of possessing illegally procured antiquities in Lamia.
July 2009 – Police in Fthiotida questioned a 65-year-old man on charges of illegally trading in antiquities.
August 2009 – Police in northern Greece say they have recovered a number of stolen antiquities.
September 2009 – A 36-year-old woman in Olympia has been arrested for illegal possession of a small collection of antiquities.
September 2009 – The Greek police report that a capital from the Byzantine church built on the site of Pheidias’ workshop at Olympia is stolen.
October 2009 – Police detain a 51-year-old woman and an 86-year-old man in connection to charges of illegally trading in antiquities.
January 2008 – A family of farmers faced a Larissa prosecutor for allegedly using their bulldozer to dig antiquities out of an archaeological site in central Greece over the New Year holiday.
January 2008 – Police in Karditsa question a 54-year-old man from the nearby town of Lazarina after discovering a huge cache of illegal antiquities in his home. A search of the man’s home unearthed hundreds of coins, urns and other artifacts dating to the Hellenistic and Byzantine periods. The cache included more than 600 bronze coins and dozens of fragments of bronze artifacts.
February 2008 – Police in Kalambaka, central Greece, yesterday arrested two people after an inspection of the car in which they were traveling unearthed two ancient artifacts and deposit books for five different bank accounts.
February 2008 – Five people have been arrested and two more are being sought near Serres in northern Greece on suspicion of illegally digging up antiquities, police said yesterday. The seven suspects also face charges of illegally carrying weapons and explosives. Officers said they seized the equipment used by the group to excavate ancient relics.
March 2008 – A 62-year-old man has been arrested in northern Athens on suspicion of possessing illegally excavated antiquities, police said yesterday. The unnamed man was taken into custody after more than 30 artifacts were found in his home.
March 2008 – Thieves broke into two churches in the mountainous area of Kalabaka, central Greece, and stole priceless icons.
June 2008 – Police in Trikala yesterday detained four people on charges of illegally trading in antiquities after discovering hundreds of ancient artifacts on their homes in the area of Laconia.
August 2008 – Police arrest a 68-year-old woman on charges of illegally dealing in antiquities after finding several ancient artifacts in her possession.
October 2008 – Police in northern Greece arrest two men for trying to sell dozens of illegally excavated antiquities.
January 2007 – A 42-year-old man is arrested in the prefecture of Rhodope on suspicion of being in possession of several illegally excavated antiquities. Officers found in his possession six bronze coins from the Classical era, eight bronze coins from the Byzantine era as well as various pieces of ancient jewelry. Police also found a metal detector at the man’s home.
March 2007 – Police in Lamia arrest two local men, aged 43 and 33, they believe to have been involved in the trade of illegally acquired antiquities and drugs. The pair were caught after allegedly selling a selection of ancient artifacts – a warrior’s helmet, ancient coins and a wooden cross – to a third party.
March 2007 – Three people are arrested in Athens and Thebes, central Greece, on suspicion of trading in illegal antiquities, police said yesterday. A 61-year-old woman and 35-year-old man were arrested in Athens after allegedly trying to sell 17 artifacts to an undercover officer.
April 2007 – The 48-year-old owner of a jewelry store in central Athens and her 50-year-old supplier are arrested after police seized hundreds of illegally acquired antique coins and jewels and discovered a workshop that has allegedly been used to produce forgeries of these antiquities.
May 2007 – Police arrest a man from Trizinia, near Epidaurus in the Peloponnese, for allegedly stealing more than 300 icons from churches.
June 2007 – A man from Athens was arrested on suspicion of illegally possessing ancient artifacts, police said yesterday. A raid on the man’s home revealed a number of items from the Hellenistic and Classical eras, according to officers.
June 2007 – Two men were arrested in Thessaloniki for allegedly trying to sell 150,000 euro worth of illegally owned antiquities and almost –6,000 euros in forged banknotes, police said on Saturday.
July 2007 – Greek police find more than a thousand artifacts raiding a suspect’s house near the southern city of Corinth.
September 2007 -Mandetained after taking artifacts from archaeological site in Argos. The unnamed man was caught at the Elefsina toll station, west of Athens, as he was allegedly on his way to meet a potential buyer in the capital.
November 2007 – Police in Serres, northern Greece, arrested a 50-year-old man yesterday after seizing from his home in Amfipoli several antiquities believed to have been excavated illegally.
December 2007 – Police seize hundreds of ancient coins stashed away by a 70-year-old barber in northern Greece.
July 2006 – Police in Salonika arrest a 54-year-old man found in possession of a number of undeclared antiquities.
The Globe and Mail (Canada) July 1, 2006, WEEKEND REVIEW; THIS JUST IN; Pg. R6
The devastating effects of illegal excavations
The long-term, and often intense, looting of objects from Greek soil, has resulted in a dramatic loss of knowledge. Below is a sampling of the intellectual consequences of the demand for antiquities for the illicit antiquities market; from nearly all eras of Greek history, from the Early Bronze Age to the Hellenistic, we are left with sites, sculptural types and whole cultural eras which have been rendered mute.
Our knowledge of the culture of the prehistoric Cycladic islands of Greece, dating to the 3rd millennium BC, has been immeasurably diminished by widespread looting. 90% of the objects from this culture come from contexts without archaeological provenience and it is estimated that 85% of Early Cycladic sites have been looted. “They were everywhere. On moonlight nights they were digging everywhere…. We don’t know of any existing cemetery that has not been touched.” (Christos Domas, as quoted by Gill and Chippendale 1993.)
Gill, D W J and C Chippindale 1993 “Material and intellectual consequences of esteem for Cycladic figures.” American Journal of Archaeology 97: 601-59, doi:10.2307/506716.
The bronze age site of Tsoungiza, in the Nemea valley of the Peloponnese, was active for much of the Bronze Age. During the latter part of this period, the Late Helladic (the second half of the 2nd millennium BC), the population swelled and a large group of tombs were dug in an adjacent hillside and housed rich burial material. In the 1980s half of the tombs were looted and the materials made their way to the antiquities market. The opportunity to fully understand the relationship between a substantial Late Helladic settlement and its burial rituals was lost.
Katie Demakopoulou & Nicoleta Divari-Valakou, 1997, The Aidonia Treasure. Athens: Ministry of Culture, Archaeological Receipts Fund, 31pp
In May of 2010 two men were arrested in the Peloponnese loading two looted sculptures onto a truck, planning to take them out of Greece for sale. The statues, twin Archaic Kouroi statues, dating to the late 6th century BC, are exceedingly rare. Only one other example of twin Kouros statues exist, found during the archaeological excavations at the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi and illustrating the mythical brothers Kleobis and Biton. Where were these sculptures found and whom they represent? The statues of Kleobis and Biton symbolized Classical Greek idealization of youth and honor; what was the meaning of these sculptures? We will never know.
Tanagra figurines, dating to the 4th to 3rd century BC, are some of the most “collectable” objects of Greek antiquity. These small terracotta sculptures have been plundered out of almost a thousand Hellenistic tombs around the Beotian town of Vratsi and are often sold alongside scores of forgeries in order to meet market demand. The cemetery of this large Hellenistic town is essentially gone and the town itself has been largely destroyed by the modern town of Vratsi. We will never know the meanings or inspirations for these enigmatic pieces.
A huge U.S. market for Greek antiquities
The US market for Greek antiquities has been strong for decades and shows little sign of abating. Quantifying the flow of goods in an illicit market is difficult; nonetheless, a handful of important recent studies show how the US market for Greek antiquities remains robust.
In Vinnie Nørskov’s qualitative and quantitative study of the sale of Greek vases, it is noted that the market for Greek vases has grown steadily since the ‘50s, unprovenienced pieces making up 80-90% (see chapter 5, esp. fig74a, 75 79d). This trend can be seen to continue more recently. The half-year results of antiquities sales from Sotheby’s and Christie’s in New York show that 2010 is ahead of the total sales for 2005, 2006 and 2009.
Nørskov, Vinnie. Greek Vases in New Contexts: the Collecting and Trading of Greek Vases : an Aspect of the Modern Reception of Antiquity. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2002.
Ebay has emerged as a new and rapidly growing venue of the antiquities market. Greek antiquities make up a considerable share of the materials available on the auction site on any given day. Although historically “bricks and mortar” auction houses such as Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams offer on-line auctions, their trade is dwarfed by that on the Ebay site. Because of the continuous flow of auctions on Ebay and because of the lack of archiving of sales, confirmed or offered, quantitative research is almost impossible. Moreover, there is no data on the ultimate destination of objects sold on Ebay, to the US or otherwise. However, in the consideration of Ebay as an aspect of the market for Greek antiquities in the US, it should be noted that profits at Ebay, in the 2nd quarter of 2010, have beaten estimates, achieving record performance.
During the recent bear market in the US, some sources see Greek antiquities as a wise investment!
What is Greece doing to protect its cultural heritage?
The Hellenic Republic was one of the first countries in Europe to adopt cultural heritage laws. In 1834, a law (Law 10/22 of May 1834) stated that “all antiquities within Greece, being works of the ancestors o the Greek peoples, are considered national property belonging to all Greeks…” and further states that “all ruins or other antiquities…found on national land or under it, on sea bed, in rovers, public streams, lakes or mashes, are the property of the State.”
The above legislation was replaces in 2002 by the law 3028/2002 “On The Protection of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage in General” which pertains to ancient moveable and immoveable monuments and other protected cultural objects that date to prehistoric, ancient, Byzantine and Post-Byzantine times.
Recognizing the importance of sites where Greek antiquities are “laundered” before sale in the antiquities trade, the Culture Minister Giorgos Voulgarakis and his Swiss counterpart Pascal Couchepin agreed to cooperate on combating the illegal traffic of antiquities. In May of 2007 an agreement was signed in Bern to facilitate the prosecution of Greek antiquities traffickers who use Switzerland in their network.
A new law was enacted in 2008, 3658/2008, which established a Directorate within the Ministry of Culture dealing exclusively with the protection of cultural property from illicit trafficking. This law also provides for the international jurisdiction of the Greek courts in matters concerning rights of ownership and possession of moveable monuments, as provided by the antiques and cultural heritage law 3028/2002, and the EU community legislation, and the European and international conventions to which Greece is a state party and which concern the protection of cultural and archaeological heritage.
For more information about CPAC, please visit the U.S. State Department International Cultural Property Protection web site.