Greek museum opens controversial US artefact exhibit

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November 3, 2022, Athens, Greece: Ten Early Cycladic figurines of the Leonard Stern Collection exhibit at the Museum of Cycladic Art from November 3, 2022 to October 31, 2023, as part of an agreement by the Greek Ministry of Culture, the Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Credit line: Aristidis Vafeiadakis / Zuma Press / Profimedia

One of Greece’s top private museums on Thursday inaugurated an exhibit of Bronze Age antiquities from a prominent US archaeological collection whose provenance has sparked controversy.

Titled ‘Homecoming’ and running at the Museum of Cycladic Art to October 31, 2023, the exhibit showcases 15 of 161  antiquities formerly in the collection of US billionaire philanthropist Leonard Stern.

The Cycladic museum has said the antiquities are of “unique archaeological value” and have never before been displayed in public.

Their return to Greece is part of a deal brokered by the culture ministry and approved by the Greek parliament in September.

Under its terms, the full collection is to be exhibited at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art until 2033.

After that, the Met is to return 15 of the collection’s antiquities to Athens every five years, and will also receive additional antiquities from Greece on loan.

But the agreement has been criticised as “laundering” the fruits of antiquity smuggling.

The main opposition Syriza party maintains that the Stern collection was illegally exported.

The government has countered that Greece was unlikely to have received even a fraction of the collection had it gone to court, as it is usually extremely difficult to conclusively prove illegal provenance.

“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 in September.

The association of Greek archaeologists says 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 billionaire collector Michael Steinhardt as illegally trafficked.

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

The top target remains the return of the Parthenon Marbles, held by the British Museum since the 19th century.

The one-year exhibit at the Cycladic Art, originally scheduled to open on Tuesday, was inaugurated by Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis late Wednesday. ©AFP

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