Hundreds of items are being repatriated to Greece after a 17-year legal battle with the liquidated company that belonged to disgraced British art dealer Robin Symes.
The Greek Ministry of Culture announced last week that it had recovered 351 objects dating from the Neolithic period to the early Byzantine era previously in the possession of Symes’ company. The illegally exported items included an early Cycladic figurine dating to between 3200 and 2700 B.C.E. a damaged marble statue of an Archaic kore from 550-500 B.C.E., and the torso of a larger-than-life sized figurative Bronze statue depicting a young Alexander the Great dating to the second half of the 2nd century C.E.
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The oldest item was an anthropomorphic figurine made of highly polished white stone from the 4th millennium BCE.
Minister of Culture and Sports Lina Mendoni said the case was “difficult” and had plagued her office since 2006, the year after Symes was convicted on two counts of contempt of court and sentenced to two years in prison. He only served seven months.
In a statement, Medoni said her department intensified efforts over the past three years to ensure the return of the artifacts as well as individual fragments and groups of vessel shards. “The repatriation of illegally exported cultural goods is a priority for the Ministry of Culture and the Archaeological Service,” she said.
That initiative gained additional attention in March of this year, after Pope Francis returned three ornately decorated fragments of the Parthenon to Greece that had been held in the Vatican museums for 200 years.
The Greek Culture Ministry’s announcement did not specify whether the hundreds of items were part of the same hoard of antiquities in that authorities recovered from 45 crates belonging to Symes at a Geneva freeport in Switzerland in 2016, according to the BBC.
The long-term claim between Greece and Symes’ company involved a large number of people across different departments, including the Antiquities and Cultural Heritage, Documentation and Protection of Cultural Properties, archaeologists at the Ministry of Culture and Sports; Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Greek police officers, the Legal Council of the State, the National Archaeological Museum, the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki and even the Greek embassy in London.
Greece’s announcement on May 19 also coincided with news from the Manhattan District Attorney’s office of two antiquities being returned to Iraq, one of which had also belonged to Symes. The other item was seized from the collection of former Met trustee Shelby White.
According to the press release, the figures were looted from the ancient city of Uruk, now known as Warka, “stolen from Iraq during the Gulf War and smuggled into New York in the late 1990s.”
The limestone elephant had been hidden “since at least 1999” in a storage unit belonging to Symes, and was noted for its rarity.
“Although elephants were known to have existed in Mesopotamia and have appeared in excavations dating to the 4th millennium, they were rarely represented in art, making this limestone figure one of the very few examples to have survived to the modern day,” the press release said.