Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Collecting Antiquities from Crete: Exhibiting Antiquities from Crete

In the build-up to the Athens conference it would have been possible to overlook the fact that the Greek Minister of Culture, Mihalis Liapis, was in Manhattan for the opening of a new exhibition, "From the Land of the Labyrinth: Minoan Crete, 3000 – 1100 B.C." at the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation in Manhattan (Brenda Smily, "Minoan Artifacts Land in Manhattan", New York Sun, February 28, 2008). The exhibition opened last Thursday ("Liapis officially inaugurates Minoan exhibition in New York", Athens News Agency, March 13, 2008).

As far as I know there is nothing controversial about this loan exhibition which is drawn from at least seven archaeological museums on Crete. Indeed such exhibitions are the way to present cultural objects to a wider public.

But there was something intriguing about the opening. Among the guests was "former prime minister and honorary president of the ruling New Democracy (ND) party Constantine Mitsotakis". (ND presently holds power under prime minister Costas Karamanlis.)

Mitsotakis is an interesting guest as he is known to have a strong interest in Cretan antiquities. Let me quote from Nikos Konstandaras ("Government Accuses Former Premier Of Collecting Stolen Antiquities", AP, January 18, 1994):
Mitsotakis, who was premier from April 1990 until October 1993, has one of the nation's largest private antiquities collections, with more than 1,000 items. Many of the pieces come from the island of Crete's Minoan civilization ...
How could such a collection have been formed?

Mitsotakis no longer holds the pieces. As Eddie Koch explained (Eddie Koch, "Deputy police chief arrested in art theft scandal", IPS, November 4, 1993):
Last year Mitsotakis caused a national scandal when he admitted he had informally amassed a large collection of classical works from sites around his home town in Crete. The rumpus died down after he donated the treasures to the state.

The former prime minister's collection became an issue during last month's elections with opposition parties claiming that Mitsotakis -- who had appointed his daughter, Dora Bakoyanni, as Minister of Culture -- lacked the will to implement laws designed to stem the illegal trade.
The case did not come to anything ("Fresh development in case of prime minister's artefacts", AFP, March 15, 1994):
A Greek magistrate investigating the origin of antiquities belonging to former prime minister Constantine Mitsotakis opened a prosecution case Tuesday against "persons" implicated in unauthorised archeological digs in Crete, a judicial source said.

The prosecutor in Canea north-eastern Crete said he had ordered legal authorities in that town and in Heraklion to open proceedings against persons involved in looting from Minoan and other ancient tombs on the island, the same sources said.

The late Greek culture minister Melina Mercouri, who died on March 6, sent an archaeologists' report in January to the same prosecutor which stated that at least 62 of the 1,081 objects in Mitsotakis's private collection were the fruit of looting from ancient Cretan tombs.

Mitsotakis has always denied any wrongdoing and maintained that his entire collection was legally acquired.

He argues that on two occasions in 1991 and 1993 Greek justice decided there was no case against him. Mitsotakis was prime minister at the time.
What does "legally acquired" mean? (See "Leiden and the Cuirass" for an exploration of the phrase.)

Liapis needs to realise that the big issue, as Melina Mercouri so wisely recognised, is the destruction of unknown archaeological sites (especially cemeteries) to feed the antiquities market.

I leave the last question and comment to Alan Cowell ("Athens Journal; Under Acropolis, Art Meets Politics, Explosively", New York Times, February 4, 1994) who reviewed the political implications of the case:
how can ancient treasures be protected from exploitation by the few and be used for the benefit of all?

The question is all the more pertinent in Greece in light of a 60-year-old law, initially intended to prevent foreigners from stripping the land of its archeological assets, that permits licensed Greek collectors like Mr. Mitsotakis and many others to declare their collections to the authorities without saying how they came by them.
Does that help to focus the issues?


David Gill said...

Mark Rose has reviewed the exhibition for Archaeology magazine (March 13, 2008).

David Gill said...

This specific story is also discussed in:
Borodkin, L. J. 1995. "The Economics of Antiquities Looting and a Proposed Legal Alternative." Columbia Law Review 95: 377-417.

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