Sunday 19 February 2012

The Olympia Theft: Organized Crime and International Antiquities Trafficking

As can be expected, attention has been drawn to the involvement of outsiders in the theft of Greek heritage in the media. One text (Fani Toli/ Ingka Athanasiadou, 'Cases of Illicit Antiquities Trade and Stolen Artifacts in Greece',, February 19, 2012) puts the case of Friday's armed robbery at the Museum of Ancient Olympia in the context of several recent antiquity busts which show it is foreigners behind the majority of them. The authors add one piece of information to that previously released which rather supports my own suggestion that the theft was the work of members of an organized criminal group:
People investigating the case of the armed robbery at the Museum of Ancient Olympia say that the 65 stolen artifacts have possibly crossed Greek borders.
According to police sources, the case of Ancient Olympia was a made-to-order theft, because the thieves, after having stolen the 65 artifacts, were trying to find another two exhibits that were not being shown.
The article goes on to point out the degree to which in cases of antiquities thefts in Greece the stolen artefacts end up in international galleries or in private galleries abroad. This does not just affect antiquities, the country’s ecclesiastical heritage has been dealt a heavy blow as well.
In the past, Scotland Yard identified the alleged mastermind behind a ring that had been stealing religious icons from churches and monasteries in Epirus and Thessaly which subsequently ended up at European auction houses. The information that led to the ring leader’s identification was provided by a London gallery following the online identification of six Byzantine icons that the gallery was planning to sell. Besides the aforementioned relics, the London gallery has also handed over another 10 icons to the Greek Embassy in the British capital which have also been identified through photographs as having been stolen from monasteries in Epirus and Western Macedonia.
The article mentions the case of the
'Kouri of Tenea’ illegally excavated from an archaeological site in the Klenies district of southern Corinth prefecture, the looters had demanded 10 million euros for the statues. They were arrested in May 2010.
The article's authors also mention "the largest ever discovery of illegal antiquities", found by Greek police on April 13 2006 at a villa on the tiny Aegean island of Schinoussa, south of Naxos.
According to archaeologists inventorying the collection, it contained 280 items dating to many periods and from around the Mediterranean, some hidden and some openly used as decorations. A 30-metre-square chapel had been built on the six-acre site, constructed of ancient architectural fragments from various eras. Other items were a headless Roman statue of Aphrodite, a carved marble sarcophagus, three marble busts and two granite sphinxes. The villa belonged to Dimitra Papadimitriou of the wealthy shipping family, but was reported to had been owned previously by London dealer Robin Symes and his business partner, the late Christos Michailidis, Papadimitriou’s brother.[...] seals and packaging found on the island showed signs of commercial trafficking. Documentation found during the raid also indicated that many of the items had been purchased at Sotheby’s or Christie’s between 2001 and 2005, although none had been declared on entry into Greece.
It will not escape notice that it is precisely at this moment when the Greek archaeological heritage is so vulnerable that over in the US dealers in dugup antiquities are calling for a suspension of the implementation by the US of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Prevention of the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property,as if getting ready for the onset of a new wave of illicit import, export and transfer of ownership into their hands of Greek cultural property. Do such antiquities traders have any scruples at all about what they do?

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