Not just a stroll through the past

Having fought for decades to recover its stolen ancient treasures, Greece is now hosting an exhibition exposing the secrets of antiquities smuggling, past and present. Sepia photographs of 18th century European aristocrats posing proudly next to looted ancient art may startle visitors to the Benaki Museum, but the show «History Lost» is not just a stroll through the past. Organizers say its timing could not be better, coming as top museums such as the Getty in Los Angeles, whose former antiquities curator is on trial in Rome for trafficking looted Italian art, are beginning to give back stolen works. The audiovisual show takes visitors through the ages of antiquities smuggling – from the Victorian collectors of Classical art to the looting of Iraq’s National Museum in 2003 – and the routes of the modern-day illegal trade. In the 17th century, wealthy Europeans, enchanted with the ideals of Classical beauty, filled their homes with Greek and Roman antiquities. By the 20th century, African and Asian art, once seen as ethnic handicrafts, also fell victim to the trade. The exhibition is divided in two parts, before and after the 1970 UNESCO convention on the illicit trade of cultural heritage, which prompted former Metropolitan Museum Director Thomas Hoving to declare, «The age of piracy has ended.» The USA signed the treaty in 1983 and Britain in 2003. But it was the Swiss signing in 2005 that was hailed as a major victory against antiquities smuggling. «The Swiss signing may bring a radical change to the antiquities trade,» said Andreas Apostolidis, a co-organizer of the exhibition that opened this week. «The bulk of the illegal trade through Europe was conducted through Switzerland because there were no customs checks.» In recent years, about 100,000 Italian tombs have been looted and art worth more than half a billion dollars was smuggled out. From over 13,000 objects stolen from Iraq’s National Museum – the biggest museum robbery in the world – 5,359 have been recovered so far, mainly in Europe and the US. Archaeologists say an illegal dig destroys a site forever, taking objects out of their context, robbing them of scientific value and depriving nations of their cultural history. «These issues are very topical right now,» said one of the show’s organizers, Yuri Averof. «We hope to launch a public debate involving everyone, not just academics.» Visitors said the show was illuminating, especially the aspect of the antiquities smuggling in the Third World. «It is easy to approach even for someone who is not an academic,» said visitor Christos Kalambousis, 71. Designed to stand next to archaeological collections, the exhibition – partly funded by the EU – has already been shown at Cyprus’s Archaeological Museum and will travel to the museums of Corinth and Nemea before going abroad. In Nemea, the show will be hosted near the 16th century BC gold pilfered from a Mycenaean cemetery in the 1970s and returned to Greece after showing up at a New York auction. In Corinth, visitors will see many of the 285 Greco-Roman exhibits stolen from the museum in 1990 and recovered in 2001 after US authorities found them in Miami. «It is designed to be in archaeological museums so the visitor can see the antiquities and then see this,» Averof said. (Reuters) (Additional reporting by Giorgos Karahalis.)