robbery at Olympic Museum, Olympia, Greece

Two gun-toting and hammer-wielding, masked men overpowered and tied up the Olympia Museum’s only (female) guard; then the two thieves stole ‘dozens of artefacts‘ from the Museum of the History of the Olympic Games. The incident has forced the Greek Minister of Culture to resign.

Update: Greek thieves arrested, artefacts recovered.

Robbery

Olympia is the second most popular site in Greece, with 800,000-1,000,000 visitors a year. Yet the museum had no guard at all between 6am and 7am – only its electronic alarm.

Update (25th February 2012): according to the Secretary-General of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Lina Mendoni, at the time of the robbery (around 7.30am), ‘there ought to be three guards and not one [θα έπρεπε να είναι... τρεις φύλακες και όχι ένας]‘. (They maintain that the second guard came a little later, while the third was probably on a break ‘[ο δεύτερος φύλακας ήρθε λίγη ώρα αργότερα, ενώ ο τρίτος πιθανότατα είναι σε άδεια]‘.)

During that time, one short, thin, camouflage army uniform-wearing Greek, and one tall, heavy-set dark clothing-wearing Albanian; both (‘most probably [το πιθανότερο]‘) Kalashnikov-carrying, carnival wig (αποκριάτικες (!) περούκες) and either smoke (φούμο) face paint or ski mask-wearing thieves cut the alarm.(1)  (The army (surplus) gear was not exactly functional at a tourist site; it suggests they were labourers who robbed the museum in their work clothes.)

At around 7.34am, the robbery began. They assaulted the 47/48-year-old guard, ‘pull[ing] her by the hair [της τραβούσαν τα μαλιά [sic - μαλλιά]]‘. Then, one in ‘broken Greek [σπαστά ελληνικά]‘, one in ‘crystal clear [πεντακάθαρα]‘ Greek, they demanded the guard give them ‘wreaths and stamps [στεφάνια και γραμματόσημα]‘. The media has speculated that the thieves wanted a specific ‘gold wreath and a collection of stamps [το χρυσό στεφάνι και μια συλλογή γραμματοσήμων]‘.

Update (3rd March 2012): like poorly-characterised movie mobsters, the robbers menaced the guard with their guns and told her, ‘we’re gonna go for a walk for you to show us the Museum [θα πάμε μια βόλτα να μας δείξεις το Μουσείο]‘. The guard, Angeliki Doufeka-Kanellopoulou, stated that they wanted “the ‘gold wreath’ and ‘the [George S.] Papastefanou stamps’ ['στεφάνι χρυσό' και 'τα γραμματόσημα Παπαστεφάνου']“.

When she told them that ‘such objects [were] not held [δεν φυλάσσονται τέτοια αντικείμενα]‘ at the museum, they tied her up (to a statue (σε ένα άγαλμα)) and gagged her.

Then, the armed robbers smashed open the reinforced glass of the exhibit cabinets with crowbars or sledgehammers (βαριοπούλες) [hammers (σφυριά)]; and they stole 65/68/70 77 artefacts (or maybe fewer, of 463 on display). The stolen goods include bronze and clay statuettes, figurines, vases and lamps from the Geometric, Archaic and Classical periods; and, notably, a Mycenaean gold ring seal with a stamp of a ‘bull-leaping [ταυροκαθαψίων]‘.

(Update, 21st February 2012: Apparently, the Culture Ministry judged that ‘the robbers did more damage by destroying what they left behind than by removing what they did'; but that was not reflected in their inventory of museum losses from the robbery.)

The robbery took a matter of minutes; it may have ended by 7.40am. According to the guard, they ‘depart[ed] on foot [απομακρύνονται πεζή]‘; she did not know if they had a lookout (τσιλιαδόρος), or other accomplices who helped them to escape. Just after 7.50am, when the guard got free and alerted the police, they established roadblocks; but they caught no-one. [It is believed that the robbers met their accomplice in the forest/grove (δάσος/αλσύλλιο) between the Olympic museum and Floka village.]

Update (24th November 2012): Greek thieves arrested, artefacts recovered.

The stolen artefacts

Update (21st February 2012): the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Tourism has posted a notice (ανακοίνωση) published a ‘Table with Attached Photographic Material and Descriptions [Πίνακας με το συνημμένο φωτογραφικό υλικό και τις περιγραφές]‘. (Hat tip, Charles Jones, the Ancient World Online (AWOL).)

To Irakliotiko Steki (@IrakliotikoSteki) has reproduced the basic information for ‘the stolen things from Ancient Olympia [τα κλεμμένα από την Αρχαία Ολυμπία]‘.

Document 1: theft notice, Museum of the History of the Olympic Games, 20th February 2012.

Document 2: 77 stolen artefacts (descriptions and photographs), Museum of the History of the Olympic Games.

(I have translated the missing objects’ descriptions and dimensions, and published their photo records.)

Update (3rd March 2012): two (literal) non-events have been reported. First, the Archaeological Museum of Messinia had asked for the return of its (loaned) bull-leaping ring before the robbery, but that the Olympic museum ‘[had] rejected [απορρίφθηκε]‘ the request (hat tip, Aegeus Society). Second, the Olympic museum had agreed to loan the bronze statuette of a runner to the exhibition on Olympia, Myth and Ritual, at the Martin Gropius Bau Museum in Berlin, but obviously it was stolen before that could happen.

Naturally, regarding the ring, it is galling that, if the Olympic museum had returned its borrowed artefact, the thieves would not have been able to steal it. But the robbery could just as easily have been at the Messynian museum. And, as for the statuette, there is no hint of professional wrong-doing: the “if only” scenario does not only require the museum to have sent its material to a foreign country; it also requires the robbers to have targeted the museum six months later than they did, in the narrow window of time when it did not have its best artefacts.

I can understand people ruefully contemplating the “what ifs”; but I am uncomfortable with narratives that (even incidentally) hint that Greek artefacts would be safe if they were in foreign collections.

Resignation

Greek Prime Minister Lucas Papademos accepted the resignation of Culture Minister Pavlos Geroulanos.

Update (23rd February 2012): Prime Minister Lucas Papademos rejected Culture Minister Pavlos Geroulanos’s resignation.

Theft of national consciousness

Two archaeologists’ unions(2) called it a ‘theft of national consciousness [κλοπή εθνικής συνείδησης]‘.

Archaeologists considered the theft ‘curious/strange [περίεργη]‘ because the objects are ‘[καταγεγραμμένα και φωτογραφημένα]‘ and thus ‘difficult to handle on the black market [δύσκολο να διακινηθούν στην "μαύρη αγορά"]‘. But a collector may have ordered them to keep, to possess, rather than to trade; or the thieves may have chosen their target unwisely; or the mastermind may have chosen his minions unwisely.

There are five key questions about the robbery:

1. Who ordered the theft (within Greece or from abroad)?

2. How did the robbers get away?

3. Where did they go?

4. Who made the ‘strange phone calls [περίεργες τηλεφωνικές συνομιλίες]‘ half-an-hour before and after the robbery, and why?

5. Were the robbers unaware that the museum was unguarded between 6am and 7am; thus, were they rank amateurs? Or did they wait for the guard to arrive in order to plunder the museum; thus, was it an inside job?

There are some educated guesses as to the answers (or the lack of them):

1. Even if they catch the robbers, they may not find the mastermind behind the operation. So, no-one knows (yet).

2. The robbers may have had ten minutes to get as far away as possible; or to hide as well as possible, in order to wait until the inevitable roadblock was lifted. Even driving sensibly, they could have got 30km-40km away before the police were mobilised. So, the police may not have been able to establish the roadblock widely enough; or they may not have been able to cover every road. So, no-one knows (yet).

Update (21st February 2012): the police established roadblocks for the thieves and their accomplice (getaway driver), in ‘Olympia and [the] neighbouring regions‘; but neither the police roadblocks, nor the police helicopter, nor special investigators have found anything so far.

3. Just because the robbers spoke broken Greek, it does not mean that they lived abroad; or that they worked for a foreign antiquities collector. (For example, a Greek Cypriot mastermind exploited a poverty-stricken Indian worker in Cyprus in order to rob the grave of Greek Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos.) So, no-one knows (yet).

4. If there had only been a phone call before the robbery, it could have been from the robbers, checking if anyone was in the museum; but that would not explain the call after the theft. So, the phone calls may have been made by the mastermind, or an intermediary, to check on the situation at the museum. (Or, the phone calls may be red herrings; they may be random phone calls that confuse the investigation but are irrelevant to it.) So, no-one knows (yet).

5. The assumed specificity of their two targets suggests a professional operation. And the robbers had an hour to rob the museum without being seen by anyone; but they chose not to. Still, they may have worried about the guard arriving early, seeing them inside, and raising the alarm. It appears that the criminals waited for the guard to arrive; but that does not mean that the guard was in on the robbery.

Scenario A

As they showed by not stealing the object(s) of their desire, they did not know what they were looking for. Moreover, police analysis of the closed-circuit television (CCTV) security camera footage found ‘movements of panic and not a professional hit [κινήσεις πανικού και όχι επαγγελματικό χτύπημα]‘. Looked at that way, it seems like a robbery planned by professionals but carried out by amateurs. (And professionals do not hire amateurs.)

Perhaps, then, it is being over-analysed. Perhaps the two robbers cased the joint themselves, waited for the guard to show them the good stuff (not two specific exhibits), then took what they could get hold of quickly. They may be competent thieves, but not cultural experts.

This appears to be the conclusion of Christos Tsirogiannis, an illicit antiquities researcher who has worked with the Greek police. Tsirogiannis believes that they were ‘uneducated people with no money, who are not aware it will be difficult to give these objects to the market’.

On the one hand, an anonymous Culture Ministry official argued that the thieves had ‘poor information'; and asked the guard ‘where they could get golden wreaths and a valuable stamp collection – which are not part of the display’.

‘”They seem to have operated more as if they were carrying out a holdup” rather than a professional museum heist.’

Scenario B

On the other hand, an anonymous police officer briefed the media that it was ‘a made-to-order theft, because the thieves, after having stolen the 65 [sic - 77] artifacts, were trying to find another two exhibits that were not being shown’.

Update (22nd February 2012)

I have posted a brief follow-up, in which I ask more questions about the process of the crime and the criminals’ escape; the very public but nonetheless unquestioned disagreement between the police and the Culture Ministry; and why none of the Greek authorities translated the information appeal or the artefact descriptions.

Austerity and security

I have had an overall look at Greece’s disintegration, and its looting crisis elsewhere. Here, I want to look at the crisis and the security of Greece’s cultural heritage.

According to Olympia Mayor Efthymios Kotzias, the museum ‘had never been targeted before’. But material has been stolen ‘from outside [από τον έξω]‘ before. And Greek cultural heritage sites are more vulnerable than they have been for decades.

Former Culture Minister Dora Bakoyannis deemed it ‘criminal indifference [εγκληματική αδιαφορία]‘. But it is a little more complicated than that.

Before the crisis, there were still only about 3,400 guards (for 15,000 archaeological sites, historic monuments, and museums). Nonetheless, austerity – penury – has forced the government to fire 1,500 (44%) of its site guards, leaving them with 1,900 (3).

The head of an antiquities guards’ union (4), Georgios Dimakakos, stated the obvious, but it is worth repeating: the political leadership knew of the ‘huge shortages [τεράστιες ελλείψεις]‘. Indeed, the head of the local archaeological inspectorate (5), Georgia Hatzi, had warned the Ministry of Culture about the ‘dangers [κινδύνους]‘ three months before the robbery, in early November 2011. As Kotzias pointed out, ‘our mistakes ought to become our lessons [Τα σφάλματα μας θα πρέπει να γίνονται μαθήματά μας]‘; hopefully, this time they will.

Kotzias said that the ‘security should have been more serious'; that it was ‘insufficient… to guard a global treasure‘. Yet ultimately, it was an armed robbery. It would be easy, and satisfying, to blame this robbery on the Greek government’s cuts; and on the forces driving Greece into penury. However, the most secure museums in the richest countries still suffer burglaries and armed robberies.

If the museum had had more staff, the armed robbers would still have had a gun. Nonetheless, the worse the security, the easier the theft. (For example, the lack of a guard made it easier for the robbers to cut the alarm.) Evidently, there was no back-up alarm. (Though that is not surprising: there is not even one in the National Gallery.) At least there was CCTV.

Bad and getting worse

It is a nationwide (and international) problem, which is getting worse all the time. The head of Greece’s antiquities police, Dimos Kouzilos, said that art and antiquities crime had increased 30% between 2011 and 2012. ‘Not a single one of the arrested had a euro to show for [their troubles]. All were in financial ruins.’

As Matthew Taylor observes, ‘ultimate culpability rests with the buyers': if there were no buyer, there would be no seller, no looter. I fear Derek Fincham may be right: ‘it might be time to prepare a ‘red list’ of objects from Greece‘, to make them more difficult to sell on the art market.

Etc.

I will add to this story as I find out about it. I am currently, simultaneously, updating the post on the destruction during the 12th February riots; and my computer is “running” inexplicably and infuriatingly slowly.

(I was completely absorbed in the riots research. Thanks to Moutsakos and Francesca for alerting me.)

1: Olympia has two museums. The smaller Olympic museum displays material from the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Olympia. The larger, apparently better-guarded, general one is the Archaeological Museum of Olympia.

2: the Association of Emergency Staff of Archaeological Inspectorates of Patras, the Peleponnese, Aetolia-Akarnania and the Ionian Islands; and the Association of Emergency Archaeologists (SEKA).

3: And only 1,350 of those are full-time; 550 are only employed in peak tourist season – not, say, February…

4: The General Secretary of the Panhellenic Union of Antiquities Guard Employees.

5: the 6th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities.

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