Greece demands return of stolen heritage
Date: 11 Jul 2006 | | Views: 7582
Greece is to reclaim hundreds of looted art works and antiquities from museums and private collections around the world, the government said yesterday.
Emboldened by the J Paul Getty Museum's move to return two prized antiquities to Greek ownership, Athens had decided to demand more repatriations, said the culture minister, Giorgos Voulgarakis. A list is being made of items believed to have been illicitly removed.
A 6th century BC sculpture from the island of Thassos, which the Getty museum has agreed to return to Greece. Photograph: AP
"Whatever is Greek, wherever in the world, we want back," Mr Voulgarakis told the Guardian. "This development with the Getty is a very important step, but just the beginning." Asked how many works were in question, he said: "We're not talking about a handful, we're talking about hundreds of artefacts that have ended up in many different places."
Archaeologists and police will scour catalogues, museums, and private collections, and study documents in Greece and abroad. Byzantine icons as well as archaic and classical antiquities are expected to be among contested items. "We will only demand repatriation where there is very strong evidence it has been sold illegally," said one.
The move was announced 24 hours after Greece's accord with the Getty. The Los Angeles-based institution agreed to surrender the two sculptures - an ornate 2,400-year-old black limestone grave marker, and an archaic votive relief portraying two women bearing gifts to a goddess - after negotiations with Athens lasting less than three months.
The relief was stolen from the French archaeological school on the island of Thassos at the turn of the 20th century. It had been of special importance to the museum because of its association with J Paul Getty. The oil tycoon bought it to adorn his personal collection in 1955. The tombstone, engraved with the image of a dead warrior with the name Athanias, was illegally excavated near Thebes between 1992 and 1996. Athens had pressed for the return of the works for the past decade.
Announcing the agreement, Mr Voulgarakis said the artefacts could be back in Greece by early September. "Their return sets a precedent. It is a huge success both for Greece and other countries," he said. In a joint statement, the museum conceded that after an internal investigation it had decided to return the artefacts. But the minister said the battle was far from over. Athens also claims a fourth-century BC Macedonian gold funerary wreath, and a sixth-century BC marble kore, or statue of a young woman. Both are highlights of the Getty's antiquities collection. Greek officials say they were illicitly dug and smuggled out and sold to the museum in Europe.
Their repatriation is the focus of talks continuing until the end of next month, Mr Voulgarakis said. He did not exclude agreeing long-term loans to the museum: "In negotiations you have to be flexible."
Earlier this year Greece's art squad seized 300 artefacts in two Aegean villas, one belonging to the Getty's disgraced former antiquities curator, Marion True. She is on trial in Rome for allegedly knowingly purchasing stolen antiquities in Italy, and is also being investigated in Greece.
Stolen or saved?
The J Paul Getty Museum is not the first to be forced to return antiquities to their country of origin. In February the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York agreed to yield ownership of its famed Euphronios krater, purchased for $1m in 1971, along with 19 other disputed antiquities, to Italy. Italian prosecutors, who are demanding the return of 52 objects from the Getty, claim at least six other leading art institutions in the US have become repositories for looted artefacts. Egypt has also threatened a "big legal action" against the Saint Louis Art Museum if it does not return a 3,200-year-old mummy mask.
By Helena Smith in Athens, The Guardian (UK)
Getty Museum Will Return 2 Antiquities to Greece