Greece ratifies deal to recover 161 ancient treasures from US

Greece has ratified a complex deal for the return, over the next few decades, of 161 striking ancient Greek artifacts from the collection of a US billionaire after Athens admitted it had no evidence they had been illegally excavated and exported.

The mostly marble works date from 5300-2200 BC. AD, and most of them come from the Early Bronze Age Cycladic civilization whose elegantly abstract yet enigmatic marble figurines have inspired artists from Pablo Picasso to Constantin Brancusi. These pieces are highly prized by collectors and museums, which has spawned a wave of illegal excavations in Greece and countless counterfeits.

Greece’s parliament on Thursday approved the deal with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, one of Athens’ major museums and a Delaware-based cultural institution to which they are relocating. The works will gradually return to Greece from 2033 to 2048, having been exhibited at the Met from 2023 to 2048.

Culture Minister Lina Mendoni described them as “masterpieces…of unique archaeological and scientific value” which Greece obtains without a messy legal battle. Before being exhibited at the Met, 15 of the works will travel to Athens for a year-long exhibition starting in November.

“They won’t come back tomorrow… but they will (gradually) come back,” Mendoni said during a parliamentary debate on Thursday. “This collection was totally unknown to the ministry.”

But opposition lawmakers and many archaeologists have accused the deal of whitewashing the global trade in undocumented and potentially illegally mined antiquities. They argued that the government should have fought a legal battle for their immediate return.

Little is known about the provenance of the 161 works in the collection of Leonard N. Stern, an 84-year-old pet supplies and real estate businessman and philanthropist. This means archaeologists can glean minimal useful information about their original use and meaning. And an official from Greece’s Culture Ministry told The Associated Press that the ministry has yet to review the authenticity of the works.

The official was not authorized to discuss the matter with the press and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Most of the pieces are the typical white marble, broad-faced, flat-faced statuettes of nude women with crossed arms – although there are also unusual types. There are also marble bowls and vases, an earthenware pan-shaped dish and a pair of bracelets.

Mendoni said the ministry had no evidence that they were illegally exported from Greece. “We can understand that, we can feel it. We cannot prove it,” she told parliament.

“A legal effort to claim the collection was deemed unlikely to succeed and would not have ensured the return of the 161 antiquities,” she added. “And we want them all repatriated.”

The Cycladic civilization flourished in the Cyclades islands in the Aegean Sea during the 3rd millennium BC. His marble artifacts are admired for their abstraction, strong lines and white form. Originally, however, they were colored.

The government says a model similar to that used for the Stern collection could be used for other important Greek antiquities abroad.

“We want to get other collectors’ attention and get more feedback,” Mendoni said.

All antiquities found in Greece are public property, and authorities regularly monitor auction houses and collections abroad for potentially looted artifacts.

Athens has also long and unsuccessfully lobbied to recover large parts of the 5th century BC sculptures that originally decorated the Parthenon temple on the Acropolis and are now in the British Museum in London.

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