Let’s talk about illicit antiquities and private collectors

On February 24 of 2014, Initiative for Heritage Conservancy in collaboration with the Ephorate of Antique Shops and Private Archaeological Collections conducted a one-day conference regarding the work of the Ephorate and the protection of Greece’s cultural heritage. Moreover, the symposium was held in memory of the late previous director of the Ephorate, Dimitris Kazianis.

There were many subjects addressed in this symposium. The day started with speeches about the history of the Ephorate and the rich work of Mr. Kazianis during his directorship, then continued with speeches about the Greek and international legal framework about illicit antiquities, the role and the future of antique shops the private collector’s support to many of Greece’s museums, and many more.

The guest speakers were all from various backgrounds, but with a wealth of knowledge about Greece’s cultural heritage and the threats it faces in modern times. Some of the speakers are members of the Ephorate, such as Ms Elena Korka, an archaeologist and the current director of the Ephorate. IHC was represented by Dr. Evangelos Kyriakidis. Also in the symposium, many museums participated through their representatives, such as the Benaki Museum, the Museum of Cycladic Art, the Numismatic Museum and the Ilias Lalaounis Museum. The Greek office of ICOM was there, too. The list of the speakers was completed with archaeologists, conservators, lawyers, police officers, journalists and private collectors.

However, in this article I choose to address two subjects that raised many arguments and provoked various reactions.

One of them is the role of the private collectors. Although nowadays private collectors do not have a good reputation and are confronted skeptically, this was not the case few decades ago.  Being a private collector had perks, like flexibility and quick decision making, thus the Greek state has at many times collaborated with private collectors to bring back antiquities from abroad when it was not possible for the state to act directly. Additionally, most of the cases of private collectors have given their collections as a legacy to the state and to various Greek museums.

But is this the proper way to protect and manage Greece’s cultural heritage? Indeed there are many threats and private collectors can send abroad artifacts as easily as they can bring them back. Therefore what is there to stop them? As most of them answered during the symposium, it is their love for Greece’s heritage, their national pride, and their own heritage. In order to close this subject, I will transfer here the words of one of the private collectors, who spoke at the symposium:

“If the Greek state could control and manage and preserve every little piece of Greek antiquities, then yes there is no place for us, but until this happens, we are the best option Greek society has.”

The second subject is the role of the general public. In the MA in Heritage Managementin our course for Public Archaeology, we have discussed various cases where the society has been left behind in favor of protecting antiquities and ancient monuments. Could it be that the living peoples’ heritage is of less importance than the dead ones’?

During the symposium many archaeologists have spoken about cases in which the general public aided the Ministry of Culture by indicating locations of monuments not easily reachable, such as up in the mountains or under the sea. For example, amateur divers have led the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities to shipwrecks and submerged cities. There are numerous cases of those who demanded a reward in return for their help – according to Greek law, there is some kind of monetary reward in special cases – or they chose directly the most profitable, but illegal way of smuggling. In terms of cultural heritage, there are ways for the state to build a trustworthy relationship with the public; by educating the local society or informing and including them in the whole process of an excavation. If people know what is the true value of their heritage and its importance to their personal identity, they will be less likely to turn against it.

Overall, the symposium was a success with more than 200 people in attendance. I think it managed to communicate the responsibility each one of us has, when it comes to protecting our heritage.

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photo Maro Magoula is student of the MA in Heritage Management. Having studied Turkish and Modern Asian Studies in her undergraduate, she is interested in Ottoman history and culture, especially the history of her favorite city, Istanbul. Currently she is working in the Department of Educational Programs of the Initiative for Heritage Conservancy. Her interests include intangible heritage, new technologies, museum studies and public archaeology. Maro loves to travel and learn about new cultures.

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