A recent deal signals a move away from the court system when it comes to art restitution. Negotiations between Leonard Stern, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Greek government have resulted in the eventual return of more than 100 Greek antiquities back to the Mediterranean country.
Leonard Stern is a billionaire art collector who made his money by expanding his father’s pet supply company to real estate, and he is the namesake of NYU Stern Business School. Stern had in his art collection 161 Cycladic artifacts. These artifacts are largely marble and span from 5300 to 2200 BC.
In a series of agreements, a system was put in place for the antiquities’ return. A non-profit legal entity, the Hellenic Ancient Culture Institute Inc. (HACI), was formed in the United States. Stern donated the antiquities in his collection to the newly formed entity on the condition that the collection is exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for not less than 25 years and not more than 50 years. The Greek state was made the exclusive owner and trustee of HACI.
The return of the art to Greece is set up in phases, with fifteen pieces to be returned to Greece by mid-October 2022. The first fifteen objects returned will be exhibited in Greece at the Museum of Cycladic Art. Every five years, fifteen more objects will be returned to Greece, and in exchange, Greece will lend objects of equivalent value to the MET. After 25 years, Greece will lend 122 works of Cycladic art to the Met to be exhibited.
Greek spokesperson Yannis Oikonomou is hopeful that this agreement will create a procedure and a means for other artifacts from the country to be returned. For Oikonomou, the deal is an alternative to a legal dispute or payment from the Greek government. This offers a blueprint for the British Museum when it comes to the Parthenon Marbles. The Marbles include 17 figures that decorated the Parthenon temple and were taken by a British ambassador to the Ottoman empire in the early 19th century. There have been continuous calls for the sculptures to be returned to Greece, including by the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsokatis. While historically the British Museum has been strongly opposed to a return of the marbles, over the past few months, there has been talk more open to the idea. In June 2022, the chairman of the British Museum, George Osborne, said that there is a “deal to be done” when it comes to sharing the Parthenon Marbles with Greece. This sentiment was echoed by Jonathan Williams, the British Museum’s deputy director. In July 2022, Williams hinted that there is potential for a new cultural exchange agreement with Greece. It seems unlikely though that the British Museum will take the final steps of transferring official ownership of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece.
This deal comes less than a year after Prosecutors in New York returned to Greece millions worth of stolen antiquities from Michael Steinhardt’s collection. The return of antiquities from the Steinhardt collection involved a lengthy and public investigation that was aided in part by the Greek Culture Ministry. (NYU’s School of Culture, Education, and Human Development is named after Michael Steinhardt.) In the past, Greece has gone to court to attempt to prevent the sale of Greek artifacts with dubious provenance. Foundations in Greece have also purchased antiquities in art auctions at high prices to guarantee their return.
There has been pushback to the deal from insiders within Greece. The Association of Greek Archaeologists and others have criticized the deal because they claim that it legitimizes both private collections without recognition of how the artifacts were acquired and illicit trade in antiquities.
The antiquities in focus were likely looted from cemeteries in the 18th and 19th centuries. British officials in the Ottoman Empire often encouraged looting and took many artifacts from the Early Cycladic pieces back to Britain.