MANHATTAN (CN) — Stolen from a burial ground west of Thessaloniki in 1989, an ancient Greek sarcophagus fragment inspired stirring words of praise, poetry and gratitude at a repatriation ceremony on Friday.
“Whoever neglects the arts has lost the past and is dead to the future,” Greece’s consul general Konstantinos Koutras proclaimed, prefacing his remarks with a quotation from Sophocles, one of the three great Greek tragedians whose dramas remain.
He added that the sarcophagus can “echo a sigh of relief across the oceans of time” upon its return to Athens.
For nearly three decades, an international investigation searching for the sarcophagus had gone as cold as the antiquity’s 400-pound marble facade, but the trail warmed again after the Manhattan district attorney’s office received a tip about a sale at a Midtown gallery.
New York’s Royal-Athena Galleries had estimated the value of the relic — created around 200 A.D. and depicting Greek and Trojan warriors locked in battle — at $500,000.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance told reporters that the owners forfeited the sarcophagus voluntarily when presented with the evidence of its provenance, and nobody from the gallery will face prosecution.
The gallery’s owner Jerome Eisenberg declined to comment for this article.
The loss of Greece’s prodigious cultural heritage has long wounded its national pride, most famously in its yearning to recover the Elgin Marbles, relics taken from the temple of the Parthenon in the 19th century, whitened and then displayed at the British Museum.
“Sadly, in the past, our country, Greece has suffered from cruel and continued smuggling of its antique artifacts, and to this day, a very important part of our heritage remains scattered around the world,” Koutras noted.
As repatriation cases increasingly hit the courts, controversy rages within the art and legal communities about whether national boundaries are too narrow a prism through which to view the cultural heritage of a civilization.
“Now we all know that the artistic expression of every human age and culture transcends and is part of our common heritage, a heritage which is as perennial as it is universal,” Koutras said, acknowledging this debate. “Art, culture, tradition, they transcend time. They transcend space.”
Emphasizing Greek art’s role in shaping modern notions of democracy, philosophy and science, Koutras agreed that this heritage should be enjoyed and shared “universally.”
“However, these artifacts must travel through channels of cooperation – legal channels between museums and cultural institutions of all countries,” he added.
Marine Corps Col. Matthew Bogdanos, who once worked to rescue Iraq’s looted antiquities before serving as a civilian as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan, borrowed a line from Plato to underline that sentiment.
“You can tell a lot about a city by the laws it enforces,” Bogdanos said.
Though today’s ceremony was largely upbeat, Vance gave a stern warning to other galleries to be on guard for looted objects.
“Now in many cases, once a trafficked item like this reaches New York or London or Tokyo or any other major city, the item has often acquired a veneer of legitimacy through the passage of time, through the passage of many different custodians in different countries and even through academic citations in art journals,” he noted.
Vance emphasized that this gives art collectors and sellers greater obligations to conduct due diligence.
“The process of establishing an item’s provenance may not be easy, and it’s often not straightforward, but the alternative is the implicit endorsement of an unacceptable practice through willful ignorance,” he said.