Speaking with Greece's Minister of Culture: Taking on the Black Market in Antiquities - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Taking on the Black Market in Antiquities "Speaking with Greece's Minister of Culture"
March 19, 2002

Greece has been bedeviled by antiquities thieves spurred on by high prices fetched by artifacts. In 1997, for example, police in Athens posing as buyers arrested two men who were selling, for $3 million, 53 gold objects, most ring-shaped pendants, from the Final Neolithic (see "Greek Gold Siezed," January/February 1998). In the fall of 2000, Australia returned to Greece two Byzantine icons and 31 ancient vases worth an estimated $2.2 million that Australian Federal Police found when they raided two Melbourne residences in a 1995 drug-trafficking investigation (see "Back to Greece," November/December 2000). Between August 13 and September 9, 2001, seven marble sculptures were removed from a royal Macedonian tomb at Vergina (see "Royal Tomb Robbery," November/December 2001). On February 7, police in Athens arrested five individuals and recovered of 19 artifacts, including a gold wreath from the third to first centuries B.C., for which the men were asking $4.1 million. On February 15, hundreds of ancient artifacts and coins were confiscated from a home in the northern town of Serres; one man has been charged with antiquities theft in the case. No surprise, then, that an Athens News Agency report states that, "according to statistics from the archaeological service and police, there is hardly an area in Greece that has not been pillaged by antiquities thieves."

[image] [image] Ancient vases and Byzantine icons worth an estimated $2.2 million were returned to Greece from Australia in 2000. (Ministry of Culture, Hellenic Republic of Greece)

A high point in the war on antiquities trafficking was the return of 274 objects stolen from the Corinth Archaeological Museum on the night of April 12, 1990. Greek authorities and the FBI cooperated in the recovery of the artifacts, some of which were found hidden in plastic boxes in crates of fresh fish in Miami on September 7, 1999. Arrests and convictions related to this case have been made in the U.S. and Greece. Since the return, officially marked in a January 22, 2001, press conference in Athens, the artifacts have been put back on display in Corinth's archaeological museum (see "Corinth Antiquities Returned," February 6, 2001). "Three months ago we inaugurated the new exhibit of these artifacts," says Greece's Minister of Culture Evangelos Venizelos. "It was a great success of Greek-American cooperation in the struggle against the illicit trade of artifacts. I appreciate very much the American political and judicial position in this matter. We have also very good cooperation with German and Dutch authorities and others around the world for this struggle against the illicit trade of archaeological items, not only from Greece but also from occupied the part of Cyprus, because this is a very important problem for us to preserve Cyprus' cultural heritage."

Stolen in 1990 and hidden in crates of fish in Miami, looted objects from the museum at Corinth were returned to Greece last year. (Ministry of Culture, Hellenic Republic of Greece) [image]

Greece is now moving beyond the buy-and-bust operations and ad hoc cooperation between law-enforcement agencies by formulating a bilateral agreement with the United States under the 1983 Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CCPIA), which enacted the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Both the U.S. and Greece are signatories to the Convention, under which they may request short-term emergency bans on importation of cultural property or long-term bilateral agreements. Currently there are, under CCPIA, emergency import restrictions on cultural property from Bolivia, Cambodia, and Cyprus, as well as bilateral agreements between the U.S. and Canada, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mali, Peru, and, most recently, Italy on January 19, 2001. The sweeping Italian agreement, covering pre-Classical, Classical, and Imperial Roman archaeological material, approximately from the ninth century B.C. to the fourth century A.D., was supported by the Archaeological Institute of America, ARCHAEOLOGY's parent organization (see "Protecting Italy's Past," May/June 2001). "We are in the final stages of preparing a Greek-American agreement according to the same model as the new Italo-American one," says Venizelos. Such an agreement would prohibit the importation of any covered objects into the United States from Greece without appropriate permits. The Italian agreement sparked efforts to undermine the CCPIA (see "Moynihan's Mischief," November/December 2000 and "UNESCO Convention Under Fire," June 10, 2000). A Greek agreement would be equally applauded in some quarters and unpopular in others.

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