January 31, 2012

Stopping the illicit antiquities trade within Greece

Posted at 2:40 pm in Greece Archaeology, Similar cases

Times have changed a lot since the Seventh Earl of Elgin removed half the marble sculptures from the Parthenon, but looting of archaeological sites continues to be a problems for Greece, as it is in many other countries around the world. Looting is a problem that must be tackled in multiple ways, if it is to be prevented.

Protecting the sites of the looting is possible in some cases, but in somewhere such as Greece, there are vast tracts of land rich in buried relics, that have yet to be excavated. Underwater remains from shipwrecks & land areas that have become submerged presents an even trickier problem.

Blocking artefacts leaving the country is a second level of defence – but as with any type of defence against smuggling, where there are long land & sea borders, it is hard to guarantee that things do not slip through the net.

Many artefacts that are going to be traded on the international markets, tend to pass through other countries on the way to their eventual destination – the use of Geneva as a hub for trafficking in stolen artefacts is just one particularly notorious example.

Auction houses or private dealers represent the next step in the chain – the auction houses ought to be the easier of the two to stop, but recent cases show that they are often more concerned with making a sale than asking too many questions about the origins of what they are selling.

Finally, ultimate culpability rests with the buyers. If no one was willing to acquire unprovenanced artefacts, then the market would dry up – it is as simple as that. With no money in the system to drive the looting, those who are currently pilfering archaeological sites would find that there was no financial benefit in what they were doing. This is by far the most critical step & applies in equal measures to private collectors & museums. In the end, the individual that buys the artefact without asking an questions about where it came from is the only thing that creates a demand for looting around the world.

Kathimerini (English Edition)

Illicit antiquities trade continues to thrive in Greece
Short-staffed archaeological sites are easy targets
By Iota Sykka

The majority of visitors to state museums in Greece find the experience disappointing. There are various reasons for this, including closed halls due to staff shortages — a factor which also affects service — and impractical opening hours. However, what is a disappointing situation to many presents an ideal opportunity for a few.

The issue of museum security — particularly when it comes to safeguarding archaeological sites — is a constant headache for the Greek Ministry of Culture, which is struggling to cope with the limitations of being short-staffed.

However, it is clearly failing in its efforts: In mid-April antiquities were stolen from the ancient site of Eleusis, while prior to that there had been another theft in Arta at the beginning of the year.

Part of a tombstone column unearthed in Ancient Amvrakia and destined for the nearby Archaeological Museum of Arta never made it there. In the case of the antiquities stolen from Eleusis, the Greek Police’s Antiquities Theft Department managed to locate them with the ministry’s assistance and the ancient works will soon return to the archaeological site. However, the Archaeological Department is still concerned and so are regional antiquities ephorates.

The issue of illicit trading in antiquities has long been a major subject at conferences organized by archaeologists. Even more so considering that certain museums around the country have yet to record the treasures lying in their storerooms, while in some cases, artworks have not been restored at all.

Safeguarding and reclaiming cultural treasures from illicit trade was the subject of an interesting conference at the Acropolis Museum. The conference minutes, which were published recently, point to the fact that illicit trade is of major concern and goes beyond the field of antiquities. As it turns out, the country’s ecclesiastical heritage has been dealt a heavy blow as well.

The Culture Ministry records thefts by region and the results show that the areas which are most vulnerable are Epirus, Thessaly, the Peloponnese, Central Greece, the Ionian Islands and the Cyclades.

According to data compiled by V. Sakelliadis, there is intense activity in the aforementioned areas, resembling the spike in thefts during the 1970s and the 1980s.

Topping the stolen items list are religious icons (343), followed by woodcuts (36), sculptures (33), metal and ceramic objects (13) and sanctuary doors (11). Most thefts take place in the fall and winter time while ephorates don’t usually discover that items are missing until the weather improves.

Equally interesting is a chapter regarding the repatriation of stolen items, prepared by Smaragda Boutopoulou. Repatriation, it seems, has been on the rise since the 1940s. By the 1980s there had been 12 cases of repatriation, a figure which grew to 24 in the 90s and to 29 in the 2000-08 period. The conclusion? Out of 78 cases of repatriation, 15 were court-ordered, 37 were settled through out-of-court procedures, six were due to the Greek state purchasing the items and 21 were cases of voluntary surrender by foreign nationals.

According to Boutopoulou, a total of 1,938 ancient artifacts were repatriated from 1945 to 2008: 62 were repatriated during the 1960-80 period, 101 were returned to Greece in the 80s, the figure rose to 613 in the 90s, and over 1,161 repatriations have been recorded since 2000.

The conference’s findings are numerous and of great interest. They include a presentation of Greek antiquities around the world by specialist Alexandros Mantis, a talk by Eleni Banou on the case of antiquities repatriations from the Shelby White collection, and an analysis of the global ring of illicit antiquities trade and Greece’s position in it, by journalist Nikolaos Zirganos.

Rosa Proskynitopoulou, head of the Documentation and Protection of Cultural Goods Department at the Culture Ministry, admits that the ministry is highly active as far as trying to locate stolen antiquities goes, but not when it comes to museums.

“Above all, we have illicit excavations taking place in unguarded places. Incidents have increased in this area,” Proskynitopoulou told Kathimerini. As for repatriation, she said that the department is putting major emphasis on this issue, especially when it comes to negotiating the return of documented antiquities.

While Proskynitopoulou did not divulge more information, it is no secret that the department operates with only nine multitasking archaeologists, who also aid the police in their investigations.

In the past, announcements regarding the department being staffed by 47 experts (including a public prosecutor, legal advisers and police officers, among others) never made it beyond the stage of promises. Despite all its problems, however, the Documentation and Protection of Cultural Goods Department is currently on the right track regarding a number of cases of illicit antiquities trading in the United States and the UK.

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