Greece struck a deal for the gradual return of 161 ancient Greek artifacts from an American billionaire’s collection after Athens conceded it had no evidence they had been illegally extracted.
The artifacts include figurines, vases, tools and jewelry of unique art dating from 5300-2200 BCE with most of them coming from the Early Bronze Age Cycladic civilization. Art collectors and museums highly value such pieces which has led to countless illegal excavations and forgeries.
On Thursday, the Greek parliament finalized the agreement with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens and a Delaware-based cultural institution to which the artifacts are being transferred.
Greece will receive the works gradually from 2033-2048 after they are displayed at the Met from 2023-2048. Before going on display at the Met, 15 of the works will travel to Athens for a year-long exhibition starting in November.
In a statement, the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports called the mainly marble works “masterpieces… of unique archaeological and scientific value.”
“They won’t return tomorrow … but they will (gradually) return,” Greek Culture Minister Lina Mendoni said Thursday during a debate in parliament. “This collection was completely unknown to the ministry.”
Opposition politicians and numerous archaeologists argued that Greece should have fought a legal battle for the artifacts’ immediate return, claiming that the transatlantic deal would whitewash the global trade in undocumented and potentially illegally excavated antiquities.
“A legal effort to claim the collection was estimated to have minimal chances of success, and would not have secured the return of all 161 antiquities,” Mendoni said. “And we want them all repatriated.”
The 161 pieces belonged to the collection of Leonard N. Stern, an 84-year-old pet supplies and real estate businessman and philanthropist, which makes it increasingly difficult for archaeologists to uncover information about their origins.
A Greek Ministry of Culture official told The Associated Press that the ministry has not yet examined the works’ authenticity. The Associated Press said the official spoke on condition of anonymity due to not having authorization to discuss the matter publicly.
The news comes as a decades-long public debate continues over the return of the notorious Parthenon Marbles which currently reside in the British Museum in London.
Greek government officials and activists throughout the world have long advocated for the return of the 5th century BCE sculptures which were looted by Scottish-born Lord Elgin in the early 1800s.
At a UNESCO meeting in May, British Museum Deputy Director Dr. Jonathan Williams claimed that the marbles has been removed from the “rubble” around the Acropolis.
“Much of the frieze was in fact removed from the rubble around the Parthenon,” Williams told the annual meeting of the world heritage body’s intergovernmental committee for promoting the return of cultural property. “These objects were not all hacked from the building as has been suggested.”
Mendoni responded to Williams’ claims in an interview with The Guardian.
“Over the years, Greek authorities and the international scientific community have demonstrated with unshakeable arguments the true events surrounding the removal of the Parthenon sculptures,” the minister said.
“Lord Elgin used illicit and inequitable means to seize and export the Parthenon sculptures, without real legal permission to do so, in a blatant act of serial theft,” she said.
Featured image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) entrance façade in Upper East Side, Manhattan, New York City. September 9, 2019. Photo by Hugo Schneider via Flickr
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