ATHENS, Greece (AP) — It is a first symbolic step in a return to the sources that will last long beyond the ten years of the Odyssey of ancient myth.
For decades, an important part of Greece’s cultural heritage shone only for a very small part of the private collection of an American billionaire, until a groundbreaking deal was reached for its gradual return to Athens. Today, 15 of the prehistoric masterpieces were put on public display for the first time at a temporary exhibition in Athens, before their final return, along with the remaining 146 works, by 2048.
But Greek opposition politicians and some archaeologists say that is too long. They say the government should have fought in court to recover the entire collection more quickly, arguing it was looted from ancient sites on the Greek islands and smuggled away.
Culture Minister Lina Mendoni said the August agreement – which also involved the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York – was the best possible.
“A legal procedure is a very arduous matter that requires very solid documentation which, in most cases, we lack,” she said Tuesday during the presentation of the exhibition, inaugurated last week and presented during a year at the Athens Museum. Museum of Cycladic Art — itself based on a private Greek collection.
“It is unfortunate that discoveries from illegal excavations exist all over the world,” she added. “So whoever belongs to Greece, our policy is to bring them back.”
Dating from 5,300 to 2,200 BC, the artifacts were acquired by Leonard N. Stern, an 84-year-old businessman specializing in pet supplies and real estate. Most belong to the Cycladic civilization that flourished in the Cycladic islands between 3,200 and 2,000 BC, whose elegantly abstract but enigmatic white marble figurines inspired the greatest artists of the 20th century.
The 15 works exhibited in Athens are striking. An 86 centimeter (34 inch) female figurine retains the eyes and eyebrows in low relief. A small female figure standing on the head of a larger figure is one of only three known in existence. A marble head bears traces of painted red dots on its cheeks and neck because, like later ancient Greek sculpture, many Cycladic figurines were initially colored.
Little is known about their original function, largely because many surviving Cycladic artifacts were hastily dug up by looters. This misleads archaeologists about the clues a proper excavation might provide.
“When an artifact, from a broken piece of pottery to a statue, is removed from its context, from the environment in which it is found, it ceases to be historical evidence and becomes simply a work of art ” Mendoni said. “The loss is immense.”
“If we accept that our past is part of our identity, objects from illegal excavations deprive us of a greater or lesser part of this identity,” she added.
Mendoni said Greece had increased efforts – in collaboration with other countries – to discourage the trade in looted antiquities and had seen a decline in antiquities collecting.
The 15 works will be sent to the Met, to be exhibited with the rest from 2023 to 2048. Returns to Greece will begin in 2033 and continue until 2048.