A new agreement with Greece and billionaire businessman Leonard N. Stern should have been an easy win for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, already under increased scrutiny for the several cases of looted antiquities identified by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office this year alone. But the agreement is already under major criticism from numerous experts and Greek politicians.
This week, the museum announced the signing of the agreement, known as a memorandum of understanding, between the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sport, the private Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens (MCA) and the Met that would bring 161 Cycladic artifacts from Stern’s personal collection to the New York museum for a 25-year display period starting in January 2024.
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The three institutions will “exchange expertise in the study and conservation of Cycladic works and share findings with the scholarly community through both an international symposium and an online database, among other initiatives,” according to the press release.
The agreement means any display of the Stern collection will acknowledge that “the Greek State is the sole owner of the Collection.” However, Athens has admitted that it cannot prove that the works—which date from 5300 to 2200 BCE—had been illegally excavated and exported, according to the Associated Press. After becoming highly prized by private collectors and museums, Cycladic artworks prompted a wave of illegal excavations and many forgeries.
The deal, ratified by the Greek parliament in September, means the Mediterranean country is eventually getting back the Stern collection without a messy fight in court. But some Greek lawmakers, and many archaeologists, have argued the government should have pursued a legal effort for the collection’s immediate return. They also expressed concern the agreement with the Met would help conceal the ongoing issue of antiquities with murky origins.
“Without taking time to research the collection, the Greek ministry of culture is not knowing the provenances of the objects and even how many of them may be fakes,” Christos Tsirogiannis, associate professor at the Museum of Ancient Cultures at University of Aarhus in Denmark, told the New York Post last month. “The deal is completely embarrassing and unacceptable.”
“This is not repatriation. It is benefiting institutions that have no right to be involved at all. The biggest scandal is that this is being accepted by the Greek state,” Tsirogiannis added.
Sia Anagnostopoulou, a member of Greece’s parliament and a history professor, told the Post she was angry about the agreement and voted against it.
“We have all the legal tools and mechanisms, and we could, as a country, have the antiquities returned without conditions,” she said.
But, after asking Lina Mendoni, the country’s Minister of Culture and Sport, for documents proving the Stern collection’s provenance and legal export, Anagnostopoulou has yet to see that information.
“They wanted to legalize the collection,” she said. “Why the Greek ministry decided to do this is a mystery.”
Earlier this year, Mendoni told the AP, “A legal effort to claim the collection was estimated to have minimal chances of success, and would not have secured the return of all 161 antiquities.”
Despite the long history of illegal sale and looting of Greek antiquities, Stern has refuted allegations that any items from his collection may have come from unverified or illegitimate sources. Just this year, The Met has been raided six times by the Manhattan District Attorney over looted artifacts, including some of which were from Greece, and a seizure worth $13 million in September.
The Stern items, ranging from the late Neolithic period to the Early Bronze Age, will gradually be relocated to Greece from 2033 to 2048. Cycladic marble figurines have inspired artists from Pablo Picasso and Henry Moore to Constantin Brancusi.
Unlike other instances of repatriated or seized art, this agreement also means the Met will receive loans of Cycladic art for five decades, along with a “major gift” from Stern to support the display and study of the small scale, marble figures. The gift includes an endowment of an archive room at the Met, a position to facilitate the items’ care, as well as funding for programming and research fellowships.
Stern has said the agreement gives a blueprint for other collectors to arrange the display of ancient artworks in American museums while avoiding bitter conflicts with foreign governments. But questions have been raised about the Hellenic Ancient Culture Institute, a Delaware-based entity created specifically for this deal with the Greek government and whom Stern transferred posession of his collection to. The new organization’s directors are the president of the MCA and two other members of the Goulandris family which founded the museum, as well as Stern’s son, and the president of the Leonard Stern Family Foundation.
Research has also shown that the MCA, also known as the Cycladic-Goulandris Museum, has been instrumental in increasing demand for Cycladic art pieces, leading to mass looting.
Finally, Stern’s blueprint may already have errors. In a detailed feature for the online arts magazine Hyperallergic, Brown University archaeology and Greek studies professor Yannis Hamilakis noted that the Association of Greek Archaeologists has already provided evidence to the Public Prosecutor in Greece showing that even if all of the objects in the Stern collection were originals and not fakes, some of them were “undeniably coming from looted sites” and were mentioned in a 2005 book by the archaeologist Peggy Sotirakopoulou issued by the MCA itself.