Monday, 7 September 2009

Architectural Element Becomes a “Portable Antiquity”

The early Christian basilica at Olympia in southwestern Greece was built in the 6th century AD on the site of the workshop where the Greek sculptor Phidias constructed the chryselephantine statue of Zeus (one of the Seven Wonders). Like the rest of the site it was buried in a deep layer of aluvial hillwash at the end of Antiquity, and was rediscovered and excavated between 1952 and 1966 by the German Archaeological Institute at Athens. Some of the fallen elements of the structure too big to take to the on-site museum were displayed on the guarded site in a lapidarium along the walls of the structure. Over the weekend an observant guard noticed (apparently "just before midnight on Saturday") that a column capital "measuring 30cm by 30cm by 20cm" had gone missing. A search of the sprawling site at first light revealed it had not been moved to another location and the object is presumed stolen. It was not clear how the perpetrators were able to remove the capital unnoticed. The General Directorate for Antiquities and Cultural Heritage has launched an investigation (under the deputy head, Maria Blazaki) and the police called in. The Director of the 7th Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities of Ancient Olympia Conservancy Georgia Hatzi has been suspended from duty without pay pending an investigation ("until further notice").*

It is difficult to see how on the open no-questions-asked market a column capital sold anonymously as "from an old European collection" can be traced back to this theft. Even on the Stolen Art Register, one Greek capital looks very much like another Greek capital. This theft shows how even chunks of architecture can become "portable antiquities" on the clandestine market. No doubt the apologists of no-questions-asked collecting will say that this is another case of a museum "not being able to look after the objects in their care". Olympia however is surrounded (I believe I am right in saying) by a fence and thick hedge and guarded day and night, and it is difficult to say how else sculpted architectural elements should be displayed on a site open to the public. I do not think this is any argument that museums like Olympia should surrender all the 'duplicate' loose bits to the tender mercies of the market as collectors interminably argue. I think to cut down the culture-thieving going on, we need to restrict the abilities of middlemen and (in this case fences) to be able to sell ancient relics without verifiable documentation of their origin and recent history. More transparency and accountability in the "portable (sic) antiquities" market is obviously what is needed.

*Another element of (human) interest in this story is the alacrity with which one of our colleagues was suspended from duty on a Sunday over the failings of a team of museum guards discovered at midnight on Saturday and splashed all over the newspapers the fllowing day. Mrs Hatzi perhaps has enemies in the Ministry? (Just a guess - but it would be interesting to know more).

Photo: The basilica as it was in 2005 (photo Alun Salt), interestingly showing an ionic capital missing that is visible on the left in other photos taken in 2005. Bottom left, stock photo of capital (Corinthian) used in one of the Greek news items on the theft (wrong shape innit?), centra ionic capitals displayed in the Leonidion (Flicr photo of Jason-Morrison). Right, Early Christian capital from Sevaan Franks' "A Blog About History", not the missing one, but probably the same type.

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