40 people against a wave of organised antiquities trafficking is a joke

While I was away, the Inter Press Services’s (IPS) Apostolis Fotiadis summarised how the Austerity Plan Decapitates Greek Cultural Heritage. He noted that the cultural heritage sector had already been understaffed and underfunded. And he explained how the staff and funding cuts, and structural reorganisations endangered cultural property protection: soon, ‘the Ministry of Culture will be unable to cover even its basic operational functions’.

Investigative journalist Nikolas Zirganos observed that the Greek crisis was an opportunity for the illicit antiquities trade:

Organised crime mechanisms are sensitive and react faster than authorities. When a state and its structures are collapsing, like what happened in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Soviet Union, traffickers exploit the situation fast. In the midst of social and political crises, those countries all suffered a severe loss of symbols of their cultural heritage.

It is not clear whether Zirganos was referring to the robbery of the Museum of the History of the Olympic Games as well as the robbery of the National Gallery, but he considered,

I doubt that someone would steal from a museum, take antiquities that are famous and registered and try to sell them alone in the illicit market…. These are usually orders from specific rich collectors in Western Europe and the United States.

(I found the amateurishness of the conduct of the Olympic museum robbery difficult to reconcile with the idea of a professional heist.)

Unfortunately, I definitely agree with Zirganos’s final comment, on the rise in illicit excavation: ‘it is a joke to think that 40 people [in the art and antiquities squad]… are able to stop a wave of organised trafficking’.

I would only note that Fotiadis appears to have got the dates of the robberies wrong: he spoke of ‘[t]he burglaries in the National and Municipal Galleries during February, as well as the armed robbery at the Museum in Olympia on Mar. 5’. However, the National Gallery was robbed on 9th January; and the Olympic museum was robbed on 17th February.

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