ATHENS, GREECE (AP) – It’s a first symbolic step in a homecoming that will long outlast the 10-year Odyssey of ancient myth.
For decades, an important part of Greece’s cultural heritage sparkled only for the very few in a United States (US) billionaire’s private collection, until a groundbreaking deal for its gradual return to Athens.
Now 15 of the prehistoric masterpieces have gone on public view for the first time in a temporary display in Athens, ahead of their final return, together with the remaining 146 works, by the year 2048.
But Greek opposition politicians, and some archaeologists, say that’s too long. They say the government should have fought in court to recoup the entire collection quicker, arguing it was looted from ancient sites on Greek islands and smuggled away.
Culture Minister Lina Mendoni said the August deal – which also involved New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art – was the best possible one it could get.
“A court process is a very arduous affair that requires very strong documentation which, in most cases, we lack,” she said on Tuesday at a presentation of the exhibition, which opened last week and will run for a year at the Athens Museum of Cycladic Art – itself based on a private Greek collection.
“It is an unfortunate fact that finds from illegal excavations exist all over the world,” she added. “So, whichever of these belong to Greece, our policy is to bring them back.”
Dating from 5300-2200 BC, the artefacts were acquired by Leonard N Stern, an 84-year-old pet supplies and real estate businessman.
Most belong to the Cycladic civilisation that flourished in the Cyclades islands between 3,200-2000 BC, whose elegantly abstract but enigmatic white marble figurines inspired leading 20th Century artists.
The 15 works on display in Athens are striking. One 86-centimetre female figurine retains eyes and eyebrows in low relief. A diminutive female figure standing on the head of a larger one is one of only three known in existence.
A marble head bears traces of painted red dots on its cheeks and neck as – like later ancient Greek sculpture – many of the Cycladic figurines were initially coloured.
Little is known of their original function, largely because so many of the surviving Cycladic artefacts were hastily unearthed by looters. This cheats archaeologists of the clues that a proper excavation could provide.
“When an artefact, from a broken piece of pottery to a statue, is removed from its context, the environment in which it is found, it ceases to be a piece of historic evidence and simply becomes an artwork,” Mendoni said.
“The loss is immense. If we accept that our past is part of our identity, objects that come from illegal excavations deprive us of a smaller or larger part of that identity,” she added.