Greek Culture Minister Pavlos Geroulanos resigned on Friday after masked armed robbers stole more than 60 objects of “incalculable” value, including a gold ring, from a museum in ancient Olympia.
Sixty-eight objects were whisked from a museum dedicated to the ancient Olympic Games after two masked men immobilised the museum’s sole female guard as she arrived for her early morning shift, officials said.
The police said “bronze and clay objects and a gold ring” had been removed from display cases at the museum, which is built on a forested hilltop on the outskirts of the small town of Olympia.
“There were two of them, and they had a gun,” Olympia Mayor Thymios Kotzias told Flash Radio.
“They immobilised the guard as the shift changed at 7am (0500 GMT), having previously knocked out the alarm,” he said.
“We must wait and see what the local archaeology supervisor will say, but the items were of incalculable value,” Kotzias said.
He later told state television NET: “Clearly the museum’s security was insufficient… to guard a global treasure.”
A ministry unionist said museums nationwide were over 1,500 guards short of a full complement after over two years of layoffs imposed by the government in the entire public sector to address the country’s worst debt crisis in decades.
“All museums have suffered cuts, both in guards and archaeologists, the staff are no longer enough to operate at full shifts,” said Ioanna Frangou, general secretary of the union of short-term culture ministry staff.
The government said Geroulanos had submitted his resignation over the incident, but it had not been immediately accepted by Prime Minister Lucas Papademos.
The minister rushed to the museum, some 300 kilometres (186 miles) southwest of Athens in the Peloponnese peninsula, the semi-state Athens News Agency said.
Olympia, birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games, is visited by hundreds of thousands of visitors annually.
Greece, rich in archaeological heritage, has been targeted by antiquity smugglers for decades. Authorities have long been unable to adequately guard key sites such as museums and Byzantine churches scattered across the country.
The incident occurred at the town’s second museum, which showcases nearly 500 objects related to the Games, such as clay vessels and bronze discs used in the events, stone tablets and bronze statues of athletes.
Kotzias said no security staff are actually present between 6:00 am and 7:00 am, when the neoclassic late 19th century building is guarded by an electronic alarm.
“The museum had never been targeted before,” the mayor said.
The main Olympia museum, which is better guarded, features statues, architectural elements and offerings from the sprawling ancient complex where the Games were held from at least 776 BCE to 393 AD, when they were abolished by the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius.
The flame of the London 2012 Olympics is to be lit in a ceremony amid the ruins of the Temple of Hera, near the ancient stadium, on May 10.
This is the second major theft to embarrass Greek culture officials in a month.
In January, a painting personally gifted by Spanish-born master Pablo Picasso to Greece was stolen from the Athens National Gallery along with two other important artworks by Dutch abstract artist Piet Mondrian and 16th century Italian painter Guglielmo Caccia, better known as Moncalvo.
In that case, the thief or thieves knocked out the alarm system and forced open a balcony door at the back of the building, which is located across from one of Athens top hotels.
The gallery was on reduced security staffing owing to a strike.
Greece’s culture ministry, along with most state departments, has been hit with major spending cuts under an austerity drive imposed for the past three years in return for bankruptcy-saving loans from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.
The government is currently in negotiation with the EU, IMF and the European Central Bank for a new 130-billion-euro (id=”mce_marker”70-billion) bailout in addition to a 100-billion-euro debt writedown from private creditors.