By Fotis Kaliampakos
On Monday, March 20, the Consulate General of Greece in New York hosted a ceremony for the handing over to the Greek state 29 ancient objects, which had been stolen or illegally exported from Greece in the past. The official receipt protocols were also signed at the event. The objects were received on behalf of the Greek state by the Minister of Culture, Mrs. Lina Mendoni, and officials from the ministry for the protection of antiquities also participated. The ministry has been cooperating for years with foreign authorities on similar cases and it is not the first time that Mrs. Mendoni has come to the US to receive ancient objects. The last time, a handover was made at the New York prosecutor’s office, while recently a similar handover took place in Chicago in the presence of the Consul General, Emmanuel Koumbarakis, also known from his tenure as consul in New York.
The minister of culture and the guests were welcomed by the host of the event, Consul General of Greece in New York Konstantinos Konstantinou, who mentioned the importance of returning the objects to Greece and emphasized the fact that these objects, although they are usually valued in money according with their value on the international art market, with the latter valued at $20 million, they are actually priceless. Mr. Constantinou referred to the importance of these objects and to each one individually with the particular story or information it carries about the history and culture of Greece and humanity.
Vases, Figurines and “Items of March”
This time the site of the Consulate General was chosen, with the ancient objects being highlighted in the bright living room of the consular residence awaiting their return to the Greek sun. The objects come from various periods of Greek history, from prehistory to the Roman era and also from various regions, including Macedonia, Crete, Central Greece and the Cyclades. These include human and animal figurines, marble, silver, bronze and earthenware vessels, gold and bronze jewelry, and part of a fresco found in the Shelby White Collection. A particularly rare and special item presented was a Roman gold coin, known as the “Eid Mar”.
The gold coin of treason
The Eid Mar was minted by the perpetrators of the assassination of Julius Caesar by Brutus in March of the year 44 BC. A story that has gone down in history as an act of betrayal and ingratitude, since Brutus was Caesar’s protégé. In fact, as soon as Caesar saw him among the conspirators-murderers as they approached him, he had time only to exclaim the phrase that has since symbolized treason throughout the centuries: “And you Brutus” (“Et tu Brute”)! The coin depicts Brutus on one side and a “pilo” (hat, cap) between two swords on the other, alluding to the manner of Caesar’s assassination. The coins had been minted in Macedonia, where Brutus had later taken refuge, to pay the troops loyal to him in the civil war that followed the assassination of Caesar, in silver and gold. And while there are about 100 of the silver ones, the coin that stands out on the table of the consular residence is one of only three gold (Aurei) that survive! This was fascinating to see.
As these lines were being written, the report of the return of the coin, whose monetary value is estimated at $4.2 million, was also published in the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/22/arts/design/rare-coin-returned-greece-eid-mar.html?smid=fb-nytimes&smtyp=cur&fbclid=IwAR0954pwG-oPMCYiJ08CEHtd1Zv3dAUnzFlmf_QLHZnIrm64XsSec1fJQFk
with the title: “Rare Coin, Minted by Brutus to Mark Caesar’s Death, Is Returned to Greece”. The report in question, although it focuses on the particular coin, also mentions the return of all 29 items, including in detail the progress of the investigations and the imprisonment of the merchant-traffickers. While concluding his speech, Mr. Konstantinos highlighted the plight of those trying to return ancient treasures to Greece. In addition to the New York Times, the event was attended by a number of American journalists as well as a national channel, alongside all of New York’s Greek Community’s and many local media.
The Minister of Culture, Mrs. Lina Mendoni, then took the floor from Mr. Constantinou and emphasized the importance that the Greek state has always attached to the protection of its cultural heritage, and more specifically to the cooperation with the Manhattan Attorney General’s Office, which has borne fruit in recent years. Mrs. Mendoni praised Matthew Bogdanos as well as the competent services of the ministry.
“That’s why we fought”
Mrs. Mendoni, on the occasion of the anniversary of March 25, which coincides, as she said, with the return of the specific objects, made a special reference to Makrygiannis, indicative of the relationship of the Greeks and the Greek state with the ancient heritage, mentioning the incident from his memoirs: “”I had two statues” famously, a woman and a royal child, dull – the veins were visible, they were so perfect. When they destroyed Poros, some soldiers took them, and in Argos they were going to sell them to Europeans for a thousand talars… I took the soldiers, I spoke to them: These, and ten thousand talars to give you, don’t accept it to leave our homeland. That’s what we fought for.” This reference was particularly noticeable in the atmosphere of the room as Mrs. Mendoni, due to the presence of the American media, who went a step further by offering a special interpretation of the specific passage of Makrygiannis from the Nobel Prize-winning poet Giorgos Seferis.
“Do you understand? It is not Lord Byron who speaks, nor the scholar, nor the archaeologist; a shepherd’s son of Roumeli speaks with his body full of wounds. “That’s why we fought.” The continuation of Seferis’s text from his essays, to which Mrs. Mendoni referred, is as follows: “Fifteen gilded academies do not deserve the conversation of this man. Because only in such feelings can the education of the Genus take root and flourish. In real feelings and not in abstract notions about the beauty of our ancient ancestors or in desiccated hearts that have been seized by the fear of the mass crowd.”
Soul of the effort is Greek-American Matthew Bogdanos
The soul of the effort is the Greek-born assistant to the Attorney General of Manhattan, Matthew Bogdanos, who took the floor and with enthusiasm and passion referred to his constant effort to uncover and dismantle the circuits of antiquities and smugglers. Mr. Bogdanos emphasized the excellent help from the Greek authorities, the Minister herself as well as the two high-ranking officials of the Ministry of Culture who were present in the room, Elena Vlachogianni and Vasiliki Papageorgiou, heads of the Department of Documentation and Protection of Cultural Property of the Ministry of Culture.
Wanting to emphasize the continuous nature of the effort, Mr. Bogdanos emphasized that even at this moment when we are talking about and returning stolen antiquities, somewhere in the world a new theft of antiquities is taking place. As such, Mr. Bogdanos joked that at least his staff, after the coffee and refreshments offered by the Consul General, should return to work immediately, that afternoon!
Mr. Bogdanos praised the dedication to this project of both the head of the Manhattan Attorney General, Mr. Alvin Bragg, and to those present of his staff, as well as his partner and chief investigator Ivan J. Arvelo from the Internal Service Security of New York, who also took the floor, giving credit to his colleagues. He spoke passionately about the importance of the cultural treasures of Greece, which is recognized worldwide as the cradle of civilization.
Mr. Bogdanos also referred to the fact that multicultural New York – after all, the consulate is adjacent to the Metropolitan Museum, a representative of which was also present at the ceremony, and to a number of art galleries and museums – wants the works of art but only those that have been acquired and are exhibited in a completely legal manner.
Deeply aware of his Greek heritage, and, after telling us in Greek that he will speak English, Mr. Bogdanos referred to the whole of his long-term efforts in this field, which not only concern Greece but many countries. It was evident from his passionate speech and his familiarity with the venue and those present, that he feels something close when his efforts concern the homeland of his ancestors, that all can benefit from.