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Untangling the Antiquities Web January 26, 2006
by Mark Rose

A new film tries to expose the network preying on Greek heritage. Does it succeed?


Described as a documentary about the illicit trade of Greek antiquities, Network shows the international character of that trade and exposes the interconnections among those prominently involved in it. Network does a great job of covering a vast subject with an extensive cast of characters without being preachy or dull. Having some knowledge of the individual cases presented in the film, it was especially gratifying for me to see so many strands pulled together. But someone with no background in the subject would equally enjoy it--or be appalled by what it exposes. Yet for everything it hauls into the light of day, Network leaves as many others in the shadows and murk of this vast illicit web.

Network's writer and director, Andreas Apostolidis, and producer, Ioannis Kaspiris, use a back-and-forth approach between narrated scenes and interviews with archaeologists, curators and collectors, dealers, investigative journalists, law enforcement officials, and lawyers. Most of the filming was in Greece, England, and New York, with spots in Geneva, Israel, and elsewhere. The footage is either of interviews (set in offices, galleries, private collections and museums, or at archaeological sites) or locales (suspected antiquities warehouses, the Geneva Freeport, auction houses). It has narration in Greek with English subtitles, which also appear when interview subjects speak a language other than English.

The film opens with a montage of images: looted tombs at Aidonia in southern Greece, scenes of trucks and shipping crates, and an antiquities gallery and the auction house Christies. Then it takes off, following a number of different cases:

  • the looting of Late Bronze Age chamber tombs at Aidonia, from which jewelry was on sale in New York in 1993 (see "Greece Sues for Mycenaean Gold," ARCHAEOLOGY, September/October 1993);
  • the bronze statue of youth, the sale of which, for $6-7 million, was blocked by Greek authorities in cooperation with U.S. and German counterparts in 1998;
  • and the Corinth Museum theft in 1990, with the recovery of most of the objects in New York and Miami (they were repatriated in early 2001). (See "Corinth Antiquities Returned.")

In addition, Network examines the private collections of George Ortiz and Elie Borowski (now in the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem). Both include works undoubtedly dug up in Greece, though not in any legitimate excavation. But the film's strength comes with its focus on the people involved in these matters and the links between them that it lays out for the viewer.

Network has an "all-star" cast. Archaeologists Colin Renfrew, Nancy Bookidis, Neil Brodie, Christopher Chippindale, Steve Miller, and Yannis Sakellerakis all decry the pillaging of sites and museums. Lawmen, such as FBI agents Patrick Gildea and Jim Barkoukis, Gen. Roberto Conforti of Italy's Carabinieri, former Scotland Yarder Dick Ellis, and Giorgos Tzallas of the Athens police, comment on specific cases with which they were involved. Lawyer Neal Johnston, who represented Greece in the Aidonia case, makes some interesting observations about how it concluded. Dealers James Ede ("I can't stop people digging up stuff") and Jerome Eisenberg try to position themselves as distant as possible from the looters and smugglers. George Ortiz talks openly and proudly about his collection of objects, few of which have any known provenience. Thomas Hoving, former head of the Metropolitan Museum, speaks about many things, including the Euphronios krater acquired during his tenure at the Met and which Italy is now trying to reclaim. Reporter Peter Watson recounts details of his investigation of Sotheby's (see "Rotten Apples," ARCHAEOLOGY, May/June 1997), while Nicholas Gage talks of his coverage of the Euphronios krater story.

Some interviews seem to have been cut short, such as one at Christies and another at the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem. And some persons do not appear in interviews at all, such as former Getty curator Marion True (now on trial in Italy), middleman Giacomo Medici (see "Geneva Seizure" ), and London dealer Robin Symes, who the film contends is a central figure in the international illicit antiquities network (he is at the core, says Italy's Conforti).

In general, Network seems to have gotten things right. It does, however, place too much emphasis on the 1970 UNESCO Convention on cultural property. Legislation implementing the convention in the U.S. was passed only in 1983, and to this date there is no bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Greece concerning Greek cultural property (see What is important for a case like Aidonia is not the UNESCO Convention but the Greek law establishing national ownership of antiquities. And the Corinth Museum case is simply a matter of theft, like stealing a car. I can't beak into your garage and take your Chevy and sell it to somebody else, nor can I break into a museum, help myself to the artifacts and then sell them.

There are also a few slips of the tongue (or subtitle). For example, there is a reference to the "Borowski Collection." That follows the usage of the dealer-collector community whereby a person who buys stuff is elevated by having his or her name attached to it and the whole gets capital letters. (Hoving, asked about motivation for collecting, responds with terms including ego, social climbing, nouveau riche, and showing off.) Network shouldn't have fallen into this usage, especially when it gives considerable space to discussions of word choice. Peter Watson, for example, emphasizes that it is inappropriate to characterize the destruction of sites by looters as "illicit excavation." It is not excavation.

One of Network's strengths is that it goes all the way down the chain. This is particularly true with its treatment of the Corinth Museum case. It shows the guard after he was brutally beaten during the theft, and it follows the story through the prosecution and conviction of the Karahalios gang responsible for it. There is no separation, the film conveys, between real crime on the ground and the looted and smuggled objects offered to big spenders in big cities. Some subjects that could stand fuller treatment are covered only in brief.

There is a nice summary of a series of thefts from regional Greek archaeological museums in the 1990s. I recall receiving several Interpol alerts about these at the time and wondered at the time if a gang wasn't targeting the museums as easy marks with inadequate security (see "Cycladic Figurines Stolen," ARCHAEOLOGY, January/February 1993). But it is frustrating that Network doesn't discuss this possibility. Another case that makes a fleeting appearance, only as a photograph incongruously among a montage of Corinth photos, concerned a successful undercover operation by Athens police that yielded 6,000-year-old gold pendants and appliques that two men selling for $3 million (see "Greek Gold Seized," ARCHAEOLOGY, January/February 1998)

Network raises many disturbing questions that go unanswered. For example, we are told that in 1968 an arrest warrant was issued for Elie Borowski alleging that he had received large numbers of illicitly dug up antiquities. Then we learn that the document had been "destroyed." When? By whom? Surely it wasn't the only copy. Were there transcriptions of related proceedings or depositions? Yannis Sakellerakis describes the recovery of jewelry from Aidonia as "the only Greek success." He then charges that "we could have 50 such returns" if there was an organized attempt to recover stolen antiquities. Why isn't there? The creators of Network themselves claim to have been stonewalled at times by the Greek government, and they contrast the fervor in attempts to regain the Parthenon marbles with a seeming lack of interest in pursuing artifacts that were stolen recently. And Network doesn't even mention of former Prime Minister Konstantinos Mitsotakis, whose controversial collection of 1,200 artifacts--many apparently looted--was eventually donated to the Greek state. The Athens News Agency quoted him in 1994 as saying "Why should I care where such items come from, since, by law, a collector is not obliged to investigate their origin."

Network covers a lot of ground, and Apostolidis and Kaspiris are to be congratulated for taking on an immense subject and for doing as well as they do with it. I highly recommend it, but at the end you may be asking if the network has been exposed fully or not. The film concludes with a catchy Rodgers and Hart tune about giving New York back to the Indians, but the New York end of the network is fairly well known. Given the unanswered questions, maybe it's fair to ask if there's an equally catchy tune about Athens. Network ($30.00) can be ordered on DVD from the SAFE (Saving Antiquities For Everyone) website.

Mark Rose is executive and online editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America