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“Insignificant”, “superfluous” and “useless”: legal antiquities for export?

“…our dispositions [toward antiquities, archaeology and the past] have been shaped by the relevant laws…to such an extent that we are likely to forget that those laws are human institutions–products of history, that is–and treat them instead as if they draw their authority from a timeless universal sense of right or wrong. Our relationship with antiquities…is now mediated by a quasi-naturalised legal frame.”[1]

In a subject that deals with the trafficking of antiquities and archaeological legislation one may well ask: are there legal antiquities for export?

Each country has its own antiquities laws: some do not include the exportation of ancient objects or prohibit it altogether, while others allow the conditional exportation of certain categories. These conditions, as one can easily imagine, vary considerably from case to case. In 19th- and 20th-century Greece, “duplicate”, “insignificant”, “superfluous”, “useless” and “valueless” antiquities could conditionally be legally exported according to the laws of 1834, 1899 and 1932.

Ruins cartoon by Bud Handelsman

“No, I wouldn’t call them ruins”.
A cartoon by Bud Handelsman from the Punch (February 3, 1982, p. 203). © 2012, Punch Ltd.

In an earlier post I mentioned the case of the “Aineta aryballos”: an inscribed Corinthian pot that Professor Rhousopoulos sold in 1865, via Charles Merlin, to the British Museum. Rhousopoulos was accused for selling the pot without the written permission of the General Superintendent of antiquities of Greece as the 1834 archaeological law prescribed. In his defense, the Greek Professor of Archaeology used the same means as the General Superintendent: the law itself.

Rhousopoulos claimed that he was entitled by the 1834 law to sell the object being a duplicate “since better examples already existed in his collection”; common and thus insignificant, since it was only “a small pot the size of an apple, of no artistic value and of a common shape”; valueless and thus superfluous, since it was “not valued even a drachma” and without significance for the Greek museums. Moreover, it was found on private land, and its ownership was thus shared between the proprietor and the state.[2]

Rhousopoulos having acted repeatedly as an evaluator and having participated in committees appointed by the state to decide on the significance and value of antiquities took the liberty to identify the object as “fit for export” without asking the formal consent of the General Superintendent. According to Rhousopoulos’s reasoning, without the exchange and sale of “useless and superfluous objects, it is impossible to form an archaeological or any other collection for that matter. This is, after all, the common ethos of museums and collectors.”[3]

The “Aineta aryballos” is a milestone in the trafficking of Greek antiquities, because the court found Rhousopoulos guilty and fined him with the same amount as the pot’s sale price to Merlin (1,000 drachmas); not because he was unable to convince the court that the pot was “superfluous and without significance” – but because he facilitated its exportation (in this case “smuggling”) without the General Superintendent’s official consent.

The second antiquities law of Greece, in force between 1899 and 1932, removed the shared ownership of antiquities, prohibited altogether the conduct of private excavations and for the first time made the illegal trafficking of antiquities a criminal offence. Yet it permitted the exportation of antiquities, especially on grounds of scholarly communication and the advancement of knowledge. For example, if the ancient objects in the storerooms of Greek museums were declared unanimously by a state committee as “superfluous”, they could then, by ministerial order, be exchanged with objects from foreign museums and other scientific institutions (chapter 6, articles 24 and 25α), making a first attempt to distinguish the formation of scientific collections from those created for private entertainment or for money-making (a distinction neither clear nor always applicable, especially in relation to the ways in which museums have developed today).

The 1899 law also introduced in the vocabulary of the antiquities legislation the term “ἄχρηστα” literally meaning “useless” (but also “uprofitable”) antiquities. After the removal of the shared ownership, the government introduced compensations to appease private proprietors who could no longer legally profit from the discovery of antiquities on their private land. The government also formed a committee to determine the value of antiquities. If deemed “useless”, the ancient objects were returned to the person who announced their discovery (chapter 3, articles 10 and 12 of the 1899 law). If deemed “useful” then the person who announced their discovery was compensated.

Yet it appears to have been the intention of the framers of the law to give a liberal interpretation to the term “useless”. As the classical archaeologist Edward Capps commented on the eve of the passing of the new law: “it is also possible that private collectors and the buyers for museums would prefer to obtain their Greek antiquities legally, when once the exportation of a certain class of objects is allowed…objects that would add nothing to the collections of Greece would be eagerly sought for by museums in other countries.”[4]

In the course of the 19th- and 20th- centuries the Greek government would occasionally exchange or donate as gifts antiquities for scientific purposes to foreign institutions and distinguished individuals.[5] Despite the legal provisions and conditions mentioned above, in reality the terms included in the 1834 and 1899 laws were hardly ever applied not least because legislation required unanimous agreement among the archaeological committee members and the General Superintendent’s written declaration.

From a number of cases, however, it becomes clear that within certain political circles, the conditions and loopholes provided by the archaeological legislation of the 19th- and 20th-centuries allowed for the performance of cultural politics,[6] almost always on the pretext of forming scientific collections: for example, in 1881 Germany was allowed to export legally “duplicates and copies” of antiquities from the Olympia excavations conducted and sponsored by the German government and in accordance to the original 1874 excavation agreement with the Greek government[7] (article 6 that refers to Greece’s willingness to repay the German efforts by giving away artifacts that are “doubles ou répétitions”).[8]

Although the exportation of duplicates was removed from the 1899 antiquities law of Greece, there is a somewhat paradoxical episode in this story that highlights further the inextricable relationship of politics and archaeology and the interpretation, re-interpretation and manipulation of archaeological legislation. For example, in two regions related to and influenced by Greece, but at the time not yet part of the kingdom – the autonomous Cretan state (1898-1913) and the Principality of Samos (1834-1912) – the original archaeological legislation had to be altered in order to allow foreign archaeologists to take back to their home institutions antiquities, for scientific purposes and not for profit, that were “useless and superfluous” for the local museums: as, for example, in the case of Arthur Evans’s Knossos excavations and the Minoan collection at the Ashmolean in the University of Oxford;[9] and the “duplicates” from Thedore Wiegand’s excavations at the Heraion on Samos for the Royal Museums of Berlin.[10]

Political manipulation in action.
King Constantine I of Greece in “traditional Greek” dress being persuaded to take sides during World War I: on the left, France (“Marianne”) and Britain (“Britannia”), and on the right Emperor Wilhelm II with the German eagle decorating his shield and Ferdinand I, Tsar of Bulgaria – all dressed in “traditional ancient Greek” outfits.
A cartoon by Bernard Partridge from the Punch (November 24, 1915). © 2012, Punch Ltd.

Political manipulation accounted for the conditional exportation of antiquities within a legal or quasi-legal framework on the pretext of scientific exploration – especially when the latter was conducted “without any financial assistance” from the Greek government as, largely, was the case with Olympia, Knossos and the Heraion on Samos. What mattered was not so much the description of an object, but whether its exportation was officially ratified by the state or not – and the lack of an official permission was exactly the reason why Rhousopoulos was fined in the “Aineta aryballos” case. Yet the legislators felt the need to use particular terms for allowing certain categories of ancient objects to be exported. And the value-laden terms mentioned in this blog provided exactly this necessary justification.[11]

To go back to the quotation at the beginning of the post: laws are human institutions and products of history. Antiquities laws shape relationships and frame the ways we view and interpret the past. In 19th- and 20th-century Greece there have been notable cases where antiquities were legally allowed to be exported in large quantities. What is truly fascinating and important, however, is not how we describe certain categories of antiquities in order to make them “fit for export” – but to reflect and interpret the “when” and the “why” this happened. Which antiquities and under what conditions were identified as “duplicate”, “insignificant”, “superfluous” and “useless”?


[1] Fotiadis, M. 2010. “There is a Blue Elephant in the Room. From State Institutions to Citizen Indifference”, in Stroulia, A. and Buck Sutton, S. (eds.), Archaeology in Situ. Sites, Archaeology, and Communities in Greece, Lanham, pp. 447-456, esp. p. 453.

[2] As mentioned in my previous blogs, the trafficking, sale and trade of antiquities within Greece was “ἐλευθέρα” (free) according to the first antiquities law (in force between 1834 and 1899) – provided that the “central and provincial museums have duplicate specimens of the same type and of the same quality” and that the objects in question were “without significance and superfluous” to the Greek museums (articles 77α, 77γ; 79-80 of the 1834 law).

[3] For many foreign societies, and especially their patrons, the right of publication alone for their excavations in Greece and the East Mediterranean was not enough to justify the spending of money. They wanted to have a share of the finds. It is worth juxtaposing to Rhousopoulos’s statement the one made by William Roger Paton who, to some extent, reveals what most institutions had in mind when they conducted excavations in the East Mediterranean in the 19th- and early 20th-century: “the true salvation seems to me to lie in a recognition by the Greeks of the principle on which the European Museums act – the principle that the possession of first class originals is necessary for the purposes of which these institutions exist” (draft text originally submitted to The Athenaeum and forwarded to Arthur Evans on August 29, 1899; Sir Arthur Evans Archive, Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford).

[4] Capps, E. 1899. “A New Archaeological Law for Greece”, The Nation 69 (no. 1779, August 3), 88-90, esp. p. 89.

[5] E.g., the exchange of “doubles” involving Greek antiquities (Neolithic and Cycladic) with prehistoric Danish antiquities between the National Museum in Athens and the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen. A similar exchange took place between the Danish institution and the Herakleion Museum: see, Blinkenberg, C. and Friis Johansen, K. 1924. Danemark I. Copenhague Musée National (Collection des antiquités classiques), Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum, Paris, pp. 23, 28, 32. An interesting “exchange” that falls under the category of “donations” involves the presentation of a collection of antiquities to the British Museum in 1912 (ca. 450 objects, mostly sherds and other fragments) by the Greek government in exchange for a cast of the Acropolis Caryatid in London (BM1912.626.1-446).

[6] An interesting case is the attempt to legalize the sale of “useless antiquities” by the Greek government. A first attempt to pass a law for the “sale of multiples and useless objects” was made in 1909-1910 but failed (Simopoulos, K. 1993. Η Λεηλασία και Καταστροφή των Ελληνικών Αρχαιοτήτων, Athens, pp. 398-402). The issue was brought back to the Greek parliament, was approved and became a law of the state (no. 491) on December 16, 1914 (“on the sale of useless antiquities”). The presidential decree of October 22, 1931 “about the sale of antiquities” provided more details as to how these sales should be organized (in similar terms to auction houses). The third antiquities law of 1932 (no. 5351, article 53) reiterated the government’s power to sell antiquities. As a result of that, a new term was included – “εὐτελεῖς” antiquities (“worthless”). And according to this same law (articles 53-54), “worthless” and “superfluous” antiquities were to be sold without even the issuing of a Ministerial permission. The official justification, in all these cases, was that the money raised from the sales would support the Archaeological Fund (responsible for land expropriations and compensations). Αn attempt was made in 1948 to sell the “useless and superfluous” antiquities. Given the sensitivity of this issue, however, this attempt failed and the provisions of the law remained ineffective. The most recent, fourth antiquities law of Greece (in effect since 2002) “on the protection of antiquities and of cultural heritage in general” (no. 3028), does not include any provision on the sale of antiquities by the state. See Pantos, P.A. 2001. Κωδικοποίηση Νομοθεσίας για την Πολιτισμική Κληρονομιά. Τόμος Α΄: Ελληνική Νομοθεσία, Athens, pp. 266-271.

[7] Further ratified by the recent exhibition at the Martin-Gropius-Bau on “Olympia: Myth – Cult – Games in Antiquity” (August 31, 2012 to January, 7 2013) organized under the patronage of the President of the Hellenic Republic and the President of the Federal Republic of Germany. The exhibition was an initiative of the Greek Cultural Foundation, Berlin (official representative of The Hellenic Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs, Culture and Sport) and in partnership with the German Archaeological Institute and the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin.

[8] This practice was not limited to Greece and its dependencies: e.g., Germany had arranged for an edict (irade) in 1899 with the Ottoman Empire to allow German archaeological excavations to keep half the antiquities found at any authorized excavation. Internal criticism of the Sultan’s 1899 edict prevented the “overt use of the agreement”. Similar deals had already been reached in the late 1870s and the 1880s, such as the “one-third share” of the Pergamon antiquities for only 20,000 francs between the railroad engineer Carl Humann and the Ottoman Porte: see, Shaw, W.M.K. 2003. Possessors and Possessed. Museums, Archaeology, and the Visualization of History in the Late Ottoman Empire, Berkeley, pp. 108-121.

[9] Law 481 of 1903 which updated the 1899 antiquities law of the Cretan State. Discussed in some detail by Panagiotaki, M. 2006. “Knossos objects: 1904, the first departure”, in Cadogan, G., Hatzaki, E., and Vasilakis, A. (eds.), Knossos: Palace, City, State (British School at Athens Studies 12), London, pp. 565-568. In p. 566, n. 4, Panagiotaki notes that it is evident from the Herakleion Museum archives that the local authorities “exchanged many confidential letters before issuing the Antiquities Law that allowed excavators to take duplicates.”

[10] Law 2277 of 1909. This law went against the 1898 antiquities law of the Samian state which prohibited their exportation altogether and made no reference to “useless antiquities” or “duplicates”: Kalpaxis, T.E. 1990. Αρχαιολογία και Πολιτική Ι. Σαμιακά Αρχαιολογικά 1850-1914, Rethymno, in detail in pp. 78-107 and pp. 135-137. It should be noted that this was not the only favorable decision made at the time for German archaeologists operating in Greece and its dependencies, as suggested by the 1911 excavations of the temple of Artemis on Corfu by Emperor Wilhelm II (without formal agreement from the Greek government) and the handing over of the Kerameikos excavations from the Athens Archaeological Society to the German Archaeological Institute in 1913. See Kalpaxis, T.E. 1993. Αρχαιολογία και Πολιτική ΙI. Η Ανασκαφή του Ναού της Αρτέμιδος (Κέρκυρα 1911), Rethymno; Petrakos, B. 1998. “Η Ανασκαφή του Κεραμεικού από την Αρχαιολογική Εταιρεία”, Μέντωρ 28, pp. 117-172, esp. pp. 145-149.

[11] With the pace of modern enquiry, scholarship recognised all antiquities as archaeologically significant. In Greek archaeology, Christos Karouzos (ΤΟ ΒΗΜΑ, September 2, 1948) fervently opposed the sale of “useless antiquities” on that basis. Most recently on the subject see, Tiverios, M. 1998. “Υπάρχουν άχρηστα αρχαία; ”, ΤΟ ΒΗΜΑ, July 5, 1998: http://www.tovima.gr/opinions/article/?aid=100933

About Yannis Galanakis

Yannis Galanakis (D.Phil. Oxford) is the Curator for the Aegean Collections and the Sir Arthur Evans Archive at the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford (until 31 August 2012). From 1 January 2013 he will take up his new appointment as University Lecturer in Classics (Greek Prehistory) in the Faculty of Classics at the University of Cambridge and Fellow and Lecturer in Classical Archaeology at Sidney Sussex College. His diverse research interests include the archaeology and art of Bronze and Early Iron Age Aegean, mortuary archaeology and architecture, the collection and display of the past, and the integration of material, textual, historical and scientific-based research. His forthcoming book The Aegean World: A Companion Guide to the Cycladic, Minoan and Mycenaean Collections at the Ashmolean Museum will be published at the end of 2012 by Kapon Editions. He is currently preparing a monograph stemming from his Oxford doctoral research on The Power of Death. Funerary Architecture and Practice in the Aegean, 1700-1000 BC (to be published by CUP). He is also leading the study and publication of a number of Late Bronze Age tombs and their assemblages from Thessaly, Messenia and Crete. At the CHS, he will focus on Tomb Robbers, Art Dealers and the Trafficking of Antiquities: Greek Archaeology under the First Archaeological Law, 1834-1899.

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