A Grecian Treasure: Back From the Grave?


In the long-running battle between the wealthy art collectors of the world’s great cities and the cultural nationalists of the hot and dusty outback, score one for the nationalists.

The latest round has come to an end in this ancient city, in a room just to the right of the central stairway in the National Archeological Museum.

There, encased in glass, reposes a collection of gold jewelry, diadems, beads and intricately carved sealing stones in an exhibition that marks the first time Greece has retrieved from the New York collection scene what it says are stolen antiquities.


The jewelry is said to have been pilfered from 3,500-year-old graves on the southern Greek mainland and to have followed a shadowy circuit from a site near the village of Aidonia to Munich, Germany, then to Switzerland and from there to New York.

In Manhattan, the items were put up for sale by a respected scholar-dealer who, embarrassingly enough, was sitting at the time on a U.S. presidential panel looking into preventing art smuggling. Today he calls himself a “victim of cultural-property anxiety.”

Greece’s recovery of the so-called Aidonia Treasure may be part of a trend, according to art-market observers.

Although some experts say that as much as 80% of the antiquities up for sale at any given time are “hot,” few countries of origin have hoped until now that they will ever see their ancient vases, jewelry, textiles and statuary repatriated.

But lately there have been a few returns, to places as diverse as Bolivia, Britain, Turkey--and now Greece.

“The implications of this settlement are very interesting,” said Ricardo Elia, associate professor of archeology at Boston University and one of the U.S. academics who tipped Greece that the Aidonia Treasure was up for sale in Manhattan.

“It will set a precedent,” he said. “It shows that Greece will take strong action in a foreign country to effect a return.”

A Treasure Tale

The story of the Aidonia Treasure begins in 1978, when the Greek Archeological Service received reports that grave robbers at Aidonia had dug their way into ancient tombs believed to be a palatial cemetery of the Mycenaeans, one of the earliest high civilizations of Europe.

The authorities cordoned off the area and began a salvage operation to protect whatever might be left. Alas, there wasn’t much: The looters had plundered 18 graves on the site.

But the unhappy archeologists did have one lucky break: They found a single burial pit wholly undisturbed. The take from it--three golden rings, some beads and other decorative objects--eventually would be the key to solving the Aidonia case in Greece’s favor. The objects were put into an archeological museum in nearby Nemea.

And then--silence. Scholars working in the Aidonia region were able to piece together a few tantalizing clues about the stolen treasures: The grave robbers had quarreled--even had a gun battle--over their booty, they deduced. But then the trail went cold. For 15 years, there was no sign of what had been taken from the tombs, or where it had gone.

“This meant that either [the grave robbers] found nothing, which was out of the question, or else that they were willing to wait for many years to see what was going on and to get the right price,” said Yannis Tzedakis, director of antiquities for the Greek Ministry of Culture.

American Connection

Then, in 1993, up popped what appeared to be the answer. In Manhattan, the Michael Ward Gallery announced that it was selling an important collection of Mycenaean jewelry. Bidding was to start at $1.5 million.

When American experts familiar with the late Grecian Bronze Age saw a photo of the sale pieces accompanying a report on the upcoming auction in the New York Times, they could not believe their eyes.

It had to be the missing Aidonia jewelry, they said, because the match was so perfect with the few beads and carved stones in the Nemea museum. Some of the jewelry was so similar, the scholars said, that it could not have just come from the same ancient city--it must have been made by the same craftsman.

Athens jumped. In May 1993, lawyers for the Greek government notified Michael Ward that the pieces belonged to Greece and demanded their early return.

It was far from the first time that a relatively poor country with a fabulously rich heritage had pressed such a claim.

From Thailand to Turkey, scholars, government officials and opinion makers have clamored for the return of everything from carved stone lintels to ceremonial textiles.

Greece itself launched the granddaddy of all such claims nearly half a century ago with its demand that Britain return to Athens the magnificent carved frieze from the Parthenon--the so-called Elgin Marbles, sawed off in the early 19th century and taken to London’s British Museum. The marbles still have not been returned.

Indeed, victories in such disputes are scarce. Although anti-smuggling laws in the countries of origin do much to protect the national patrimony, commercial laws in the wealthy collector nations are generally written in ways that protect the free market and the purchaser.

As Boston University’s Elia put it: “The material starts out illegal in the country of origin--say, Greece--but through a process of laundering it ends up legal.”

In Greece, for instance, the Antiquities Act of 1932 makes all ancient artworks national property and proscribes the digging and exporting of cultural artifacts. Thus, the grave robbers at Aidonia were clearly lawbreakers in Greece, but the government could not move against them because it had no idea what was going on until the loot was long gone.

“We know that it went through Munich,” the Ministry of Culture’s Tzedakis said. “Most of the antiquities are now sent out of Greece aboard these big trucks with fruits and tomatoes. They go to Munich.

“But,” he added with a knowing smile, “Munich is not a center for fruits.”

And once the statues, jewelry and pottery are in the rich countries where the collectors live, the government of a country of origin must provide documentation that the goods were stolen from a site within its modern-day borders. This is surprisingly difficult to do.

In one 1989 case, for example, Peru went to court in the U.S. to recover 89 pre-Columbian artifacts that had been seized by the U.S. Customs Service from an American collector. But Peru lost the case because although the objects were clearly worked in the ancient Peruvian style, it was impossible to prove that they had not been excavated from a site in Ecuador, Colombia or even Polynesia.

Greek officials have encountered a similar problem in recovering missing classical statuary. Because of the extensive range of early Greek administration and trade, it usually is impossible to prove that a disputed “Greek” object was really found in Greece proper and not somewhere else in the Mediterranean--outside modern-day borders and thus the jurisdictional reach of the 1932 law.

But in the case of the Aidonia Treasure, Greece had two factors working to its advantage. First was the handful of rings and beads on display at Nemea. The match was good, enabling Greece to claim that there was little doubt where Ward’s jewels came from.

Second was Ward’s prominence in the cultural preservation world. No ordinary gallery owner, he had a strong scholarly interest and sat on the U.S. Cultural Property Advisory Committee, an 11-member presidential body established by a 1983 U.S. law that implemented a U.N. convention prohibiting the smuggling of cultural property.

The committee’s purpose is to investigate requests from countries seeking import bans on looted pieces of their cultural heritage.

“It was a very difficult position for Mr. Ward,” Tzedakis said. “He was a person of a very high reputation. But he was, at the same time, buying things from robbers.”

Ward stoutly denies this charge, countering that he tried to check out the treasure’s background with the Greek government before he put it on sale.

“They sent me a letter saying it was not known to be stolen from any architectural site or museum,” he said. “It seems odd they didn’t make the association [with Aidonia] then.”

That’s true, Tzedakis said, but at the time Ward’s letter of inquiry arrived, the Greek officials who received it were not yet aware that the pieces were missing from Aidonia.

At first, Ward declined to return the jewelry. Greece sued. Ward put the ornaments into a bank vault while the case was being decided.

Unusual Settlement

And then, as the pretrial discovery process was getting underway, the gallery announced that it would make an unusual settlement: The jewelry would go to a nonprofit charitable organization, the Society for the Preservation of the Greek Heritage. The charity was free to return the treasure to Greece, which it has done.

Ward said he decided to settle because he could see the dispute was taking on political overtones--not because he was convinced that the jewelry was stolen from Aidonia.

On the contrary. “Don’t believe everything you read on the walls in Athens,” he warned, referring to the plaques now fixed to the walls of the National Archeological Museum that tell Greece’s tale of the Aidonia Treasure’s looting and return.

“There’s no proof that those pieces really came from that place,” Ward insisted. “This case has nothing to do with scholarship and everything to do with politics.”

Art-smuggling experts say that Ward’s use of a nonprofit charitable organization in the settlement marked a clever use of the U.S. laws governing tax write-offs--laws that have more traditionally been used to fill the halls of American museums.

Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, called the donation-cum-tax-break “one of the most creative, and potentially the single most effective, schemes to regain smuggled works in the history of the game.”

The donation to a tax-exempt society spared Ward the potential embarrassment of returning the jewelry directly to Greece, and it also enabled him to recoup his acquisition price--undisclosed, but reported to be $150,000--in an income-tax write-off.

But for Greece, the out-of-court settlement was bittersweet. Greek officials say they are thrilled to have the jewelry back. But by stopping short of a trial, they forfeited their only chance to learn how the Aidonia Treasure made its way to New York.

Which is more than an academic matter. The jewelry recovered from the Michael Ward Gallery, Tzedakis said, constitutes just one or two tombs’ worth of artifacts out of the 18 that were plundered.

Tzedakis said he believes that the remaining items are in ultra-secretive Switzerland but that he has lost any hope of finding out where.

“If we had gone ahead with the trial, we would now know the names, and we could have broken the chain from Greece to Munich and to the New World,” he said.

In any case, the art world may be seeing more such out-of-court settlements involving plundered antiquities.

In 1993, Turkey recovered a collection of more than 200 gold, silver and bronze dishes and ornaments from New York’s Metropolitan Museum after it showed that--like Greece in the Aidonia case--it could pinpoint the very tombs from which the objects had been stolen.

Lost Marbles

The return of the Aidonia Treasure has prompted Greek Culture Minister Stavros Benos to say that he is dreaming, once again, of the return of the Elgin Marbles.

But Jules Dassin, the filmmaker and the widower of actress and former Culture Minister Melina Mercouri--who made the return of the marbles a rallying cry during her time in government--said the legal concepts underlying the cases are very different.

The Aidonia Treasure was a fairly open-and-shut case of smuggling, post 1932, Dassin said in an interview at his Athens home.

The Elgin Marbles, by contrast, were removed from the Greek capital well before 1932, at a time when the city and most of Greece were under Turkish occupation.

Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to Constantinople (now Istanbul) at the time, had been issued a permit from the Turkish state allowing him to make casts of the Parthenon sculptures.

“No person should . . . prevent [Elgin] from removing any stone bearing inscriptions or figures,” the permit states.

Under these circumstances, Greece and Britain have both mounted plausible arguments that the marbles are rightfully theirs.

Greece is, nevertheless, moving forward on the construction of a large new museum at the foot of the Acropolis to hold the best of the nation’s antiquities--including the Elgin Marbles.

And what will Greece do with all that new exhibition space if the Elgin Marbles are not brought back from London?

Tzedakis votes for replicas, but Dassin would prefer a big, evocative empty space, from which reverberations of shame might reach Westminster.