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Mycenaean Jewelry Goes Home Volume 49 Number 3, May/June 1996
by Shareen Brysac

The return of some 50 Mycenaean artifacts to Greece was marked by a repatriation ceremony in the rotunda of the Russell Senate Building in Washington. The objects--two gold signet rings, carved sealstones, gold clothing ornaments, and necklaces of amethyst and glass beads--are believed to have been plundered, probably in 1978, from one or more tombs at Aidonia, a site near Nemea in southern Greece (see ARCHAEOLOGY, September/October 1993).

The Washington ceremony, attended by U.S. senators, Greek diplomats, and archaeologists, left many questions unanswered: How big a tax break did dealer Michael Ward receive from the U.S. government for donating the objects to the Society for the Preservation of the Greek Heritage, the charitable foundation that turned them over, a year later, to Greece? Did Ward, at the time a presidential appointee to the U.S. Cultural Property Advisory Committee, whose mission is to protect the world's artistic heritage, deduct out-of-pocket costs or the appreciated market value for the objects? The story of the gold's journey from Greece to New York also remains unclear. Ward claimed to have purchased the objects from a European collector who, because the case never went to trial, remains unnamed.

The out-of-court settlement was a bittersweet victory for Greece, which had to pay legal fees--funds that might have furthered excavations or helped to secure and preserve objects in the country's underfunded museums. The clear losers were scholars, who were never able to study the objects in context, and U.S. taxpayers, who underwrote the donation and in return were allotted a mere four-day glimpse of the objects in Washington and a somewhat longer viewing in Dallas.

In conjunction with the repatriation ceremony, the Smithsonian Institution sponsored a one-day seminar on Mycenaean archaeology. The excavator of Nemea, Stephen Miller of the University of California, Berkeley, discussed the problem of collusion between government officials, guards, and looters in the extensive plundering of archaeological sites and museums in Greece. Miller recounted that between 1974 and 1994 there were 69 reported thefts, most of them from guarded sites. Part of the reason is the meager salaries paid by the archaeological service to personnel and the scanty government budget. Miller said the Nemea museum--where the Aidonia jewelry has been placed on display--generates two million dollars in tourist revenue annually. By contrast, the Greek Ministry of Culture's share of the national budget is 0.043 percent.

© 1996 by the Archaeological Institute of America