A chronicle of efforts to trace antiquities looted in WWII

Ekathimerini 4 September 2014
By Marianna Kakaounaki

On March 30, 2013, engineer Ronald Obermeier went to the post office of his hometown of Rimsting, Germany, holding a parcel that he had put a lot of consideration into before posting it. He had carefully wrapped its contents the previous night: 73 ancient relics dating from the Hellenistic period to the 4th century AD. He remembered these objects displayed throughout his childhood in a glass cabinet in the family’s living room and his father telling him the fascinating tale of how they ended up there.

“I grew up with them, but one day I decided it was time for those antiquities to go back where they belong,” Obermeier told Kathimerini. He sent the parcel to the Archaeological Museum of Kos, the eastern Aegean island where his father had served as a German naval correspondent in 1942, when the Nazis occupied Greece.

The handwritten letter Obermeier sent with the parcel, seen by Kathimerini, recounts the tales that his father told him about the provenance of the antiquities.

“A building that served as a museum was commandeered to serve as the local headquarters,” he said. “They threw the exhibits out the window. My father gathered a few of the objects and coins and brought them to Germany. After his death in 1996, these came to me and I would now really like to return them to a museum in Kos.”

The looting of this small museum is one of hundreds of stories that unfolded during the occupation of Greece and would never have come to light had Obermeier not taken the initiative.

The only written source concerning antiquities looted during World War II is a 165-page tome from 1946 recounting hundreds of stories of illegal excavations and destruction carried out by all three occupying forces – the Germans, Italians and Bulgarians.

In the prologue, the minister of education and religion, who ordered some of the most prominent archaeologists of the time to compile this record, notes that it is incomplete. With Greece on the brink of a civil war there were many cities and towns that had no records at all because of staff shortages, but the stories nevertheless poured in.

It is this list that formed a springboard more recently for the Culture Ministry’s Department of Documentation and Protection of Cultural Heritage. A group of six archaeologists and historians took the initiative last year to create a fresh record of missing antiquities as well as those that were returned to Greece following the end of the war.

“The list from 1946 was the starting point but we now have the opportunity to use the German archives which were opened this last decade and provide a plethora of information regarding the events of those years, as well as many other sources,” explained Suzanna Houlia, head of the department.

The ministry has also recently sought the help of Interpol to trace at least 100 of the most precious items found on the list. “It is certain that a lot of antiquities removed during the occupation are still missing. We may not have an exact number but many of them have been adequately recorded and must now be located,” explained Houlia.

The search has already started on the websites of major museums around the world, with a particular focus on exhibits that are of “unknown provenance from World War II.”

The priority has been placed on those objects for which there is solid proof regarding what they are and how they were stolen. Among these are two clay female figurines taken by two Italian officers from a local man on the island of Sifnos, who had been hiding them in his home together with other valuable finds from an excavation in 1935, and two marble grave steles removed by the Germans in 1943 from a collection in Kissamos, Crete.

Any one of these objects that is found will join the list of just 26 successful recoveries, the first of which were made in the summer in 1948.

The first expedition

On May 18, 1948, archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos (photo) set off for Rome to retrieve stolen antiquities on the orders of the Ministry of Education and Religion.

As an archaeology professor who “spoke three foreign languages, was well-traveled, with studies in Berlin, and a patriot, he had all those elements that made him the country’s chief archaeologist at the time,” explained Eleni Matzourani, a history professor who, together with Marinatos’s daughter, Nanno, recently wrote a biography of his life using stories and archival material referring to that trip that had never been published before.

Marinatos had the list drawn up in 1946, enough money – in US dollars – and carte blanche to follow his investigation wherever it took him. The most important thing he had with him, however, was the uniform of an army major, a rank he was awarded in an expedited fashion a few months earlier in order to facilitate contact with the allied forces in the search for the stolen antiquities and the negotiations regarding their return.

“They should have made me a lieutenant colonel,” he is said to have complained to a fellow archaeologist shortly before leaving for Rome. It seems that Marinatos was concerned that his rank was not high enough to earn him the kind of status he needed. The allied forces in Berlin had already started complaining of Marinatos’s plans.

His trip lasted 75 days and he ran into numerous obstacles, including failing to make the stop he had planned in Berlin as the allied powers invoked all sorts of bureaucratic obstacles to his entry. In Rome and at his other scheduled stop, Graz in Austria, he also had problems gaining the trust and cooperation of army men and even archaeologists.

Marinatos toured museums and universities looking for the objects on the list and thanks to his acquaintances in the international academic community was able to find many as well as information concerning the whereabouts of others.

His aim in Rome was to finds dozens of antiquities stolen from Rhodes in 1940 and to include them in a large archaeological exhibition that was to take place in Naples. These included the famed Aphrodite of Rhodes statue (photo), which traveled to the exhibition on a Greek ocean liner because neither Marinatos nor the Greek consul in Naples dared to place it in the hands of foreigners.

Graz was his second stop and he arrived there in July 1948. He wanted to visit the small Austrian town because it was the home of the notorious Austrian Nazi General Julius Ringel, whose headquarters in 1941 were located at the Villa Ariadne in Knossos, Crete, and who pillaged both the sites of Knossos and Gortyna of a plethora of antiquities which he then shipped to Germany.

When Marinatos arrived there after experiencing the disappointment of Berlin he was dealt another blow: Ringel had fled the town and was wanted for war crimes. His mansion had also been ransacked by Russian troops, who also made off with all of the antiquities.

Marinatos, however, did not give up his inquiries and learned that some of the loot from Knossos had been donated by Ringel to the local university, and he was thus able to trace a number of items. He packed them into three large crates and shipped them to Greece. In September, 1948, he joined these antiquities on their final journey back to the Archaeological Site of Knossos.

Museums hide exhibits

Shortly after his 1948 trip, Marinatos was appointed Greece’s director-general of antiquities.

As well as than the repatriations he also faced the gargantuan task of reorganizing the country’s museums, which had been closed down during the occupation and their contents hidden away to protect them from bombardments and looting occupation forces.

Using funds from the Marshall Plan, he hired people for just this job, among them Evi Touloupa, a young archaeologist who was put to work at the National Archaeological Museum in the winter of 1950.

“I was so excited because throughout my time at university the museums were closed and what we learned was purely theoretical. I couldn’t wait to touch the ancient objects,” Touloupa, now 90, remembered. She and her team headed into the museum’s basements, where the pottery and sculpture had been stored in crates. The labels identifying what each box contained were faded with age and humidity, making the task of cataloging that much harder.

“The vessels were wrapped in cotton and paper, which we were surprised to see often had blood drops on them. ‘It’s from the rats,’ my assistant Stavros told me,” said Touloupa. Despite her excitement, there was plenty of tension. The father of her assistant Stavros Kasandris was a veteran artisan who had been active in the operation to hide the museum’s exhibits in the basement areas that were created for that purpose during the Nazi occupation. A year later he died of starvation.

The operation to hide the artifacts (photo) had started on November 11, 1940, when the management of every museum in the country received a circular containing detailed instructions about how to store and protect their exhibits.

“Early in the morning, before the moon set, everyone tasked with the job would gather at the museum and work all through the day,” the late Semni Karouzou, a member of the committee responsible for salvaging the country’s cultural treasures, wrote, describing the situation at the National Archaeological Museum, where the operation lasted for six months.

“How they stored the objects depended on their size and importance. They didn’t know how much time they had at their disposal and there were hundreds of items to deal with,” explained Costas Paschalidis, the museum’s curator of antiquities and a scholar of its archives and documents.

Smaller objects were placed in crates and stored in the basements, while larger exhibits, such as the 3-meter Kouros of Sounio, were buried in the ground.

Similar operations were taking place all over the country: Objects were hidden in caves on the Acropolis, in ancient tombs, in gardens and even in crypts. Some statues were transported to other parts of the country for safekeeping and the catalogs of every museum’s treasure were sealed in vaults in the Bank of Greece.

So when the Nazis first started to arrive in Greece in April 1941, they found the country’s museums either closed or empty. Throughout the occupation, a special service set up by the German military for the protection of art pushed for the museums to be reopened. The only case in which the Greek side bowed to its demands was at the Archaeological Museum of Kerameikos, where the reasoning given was that it had been built with German funding. The result of this decision was that during a tour of high-ranking Nazi officers of the premises on November 9, 1941, a black-figure plate depicting a dead man was stolen, and remains missing to this day.
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