Greece approves controversial US artefact deal

Greece's parliament on Thursday ratified a landmark deal for the acquisition of a prominent US archaeological collection whose provenance has sparked controversy among experts.

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Under the terms of the agreement, 15 of the 161 Bronze Age antiquities formerly in the collection of US billionaire and philanthropist Leonard Stern will be displayed at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens for a year, Greek officials said.

These items — including idols, vases and bowls — will then be returned to the US and exhibited together as a collection at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art until 2033.

After that, the Met will return 15 antiquities every five years, and as part of the deal will also receive additional antiquities from Greece on loan.

The main opposition leftist Syriza party has accused the government of failing to vet the provenance of the Stern collection and of thereby “laundering” the fruits of antiquity smuggling.

museum of cycladic art
Cycladic ‘Spedos style’ figurines, from Naxos, Greece. Credit line: Profimedia

“The treasure held by Mr Stern has been illegally exported from Greece,” Syriza deputy Sia Anagnostopoulou told parliament on Thursday.

The government has shrugged off criticism and stresses that Greece was fortunate to have acquired the collection, as it is often extremely difficult to conclusively prove illegal provenance in court.

“It was impossible to find evidence on (all of) the 161 antiquities, and we want to repatriate all of them,” Culture Minister Lina Mendoni told parliament on Thursday.

“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” ruling party MP Fotini Pipili, who sponsored the deal in parliament, told lawmakers.

“Greece permanently acquires a rare collection which two years ago it was not aware of,” Pipili said.

In a statement Wednesday, the association of Greek archaeologists said Stern was a “proven recipient of smuggled archaeological discoveries” and that the agreement set a poor precedent to let wealthy collectors off the hook.

The archaeologists said Stern had previously owned a Bronze Age marble idol from Sardinia that was later seized in 2018 from billionnaire collector Michael Steinhardt as illegally trafficked.

Greece’s culture ministry has been trying to broker deals for the repatriation of antiquities without resorting to legal action.

Its chief goal remains the return of the Parthenon Marbles, held by the British Museum since the 19th century.

The one-year exhibit at the Cycladic Art museum in Athens opens on November 1. © AFP

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