Archaeological detective work

While some people’s job is to look for burglars or murderers, forensic archaeologists Christos Tsirogiannis spends his time searching for looted antiquities.
He has identified 1,100 such artefacts in 13 years, and accuses the major auction houses, such as Christie’s, Sotheby’s or Bonham’s, of failing to properly check the provenance of antiquities in their catalogues. He asserts that they don’t take the necessary steps in due diligence by contacting the authorities before buying or selling antiquities.
Of course, the auction houses deny this, and insist they do work with authorities in order to establish due diligence, but that they don’t have access to the databases of seized objects, something which Tsirogiannis contests.

 

Photo: Google

 

Be that as it may, Bonham’s has recently withdrawn an ancient Greek drinking vessel from sale amid accusations that it was illegally excavated. Tsirogiannis alerted Interpol after producing evidence linking the Bonhams antiquity to convicted traffickers in stolen artefacts. He recognised lot 95, an ­ancient Greek vessel from 375-350 BC, in Bonhams’ catalogue for its July 3 ­antiquities auction at its flagship London salesroom. The 8in-high Apulian red-figure kantharos or drinking cup was estimated to fetch ­between £20,000 and £30,000.
Dr Tsirogiannis has access to images confiscated in police raids and he found a picture of the vessel, still with soil on it, in ­archives seized from ­Gianfranco Becchina, convicted in Italy and Greece of illegally dealing in antiquities.

 

Example of kantharos vase. Photo:Google

 

Cambridge-based Tsirogiannis also works for the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Glasgow. He is determined to draw public attention to the irreparable damage done by looters of antiquities from archaeological sites.
Christos studied archaeology and history of art at the University of Athens, and received his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge, on the international illicit antiquities network.
He has worked for the Greek Ministries of Culture and Justice, excavating throughout Greece and recording antiquities in private hands, and has voluntarily cooperated with the Greek police Art Squad. He was also a member of the Greek Task Force Team that repatriated looted, smuggled and stolen antiquities from the Getty Museum, the Shelby White/Leon Levy collection, the Jean-David Cahn AG galleries, and others. In 2013, he won the annual Award for Art Protection and Security from the Association for Research into Crimes against Art.

Tsirogiannis believes that to loot and trade in stolen goods is a crime against humanity, because it is the cause of a major catastrophe: the irreparable loss of knowledge about our past. He has built a secret archive of tens of thousands of photos from the antiquities underground traffic, where illicitly dug artefacts pass from tomb raiders to smugglers to dealers and then on to museums, collectors, and auction houses. He has been given most of his images from prosecutors in Greece and Italy who have obtained them from police raids; he matches the photos with objects that surface at auctions or museums and then works to repatriate the pieces.

 

 

Tsirogiannis is somewhat of a thorn in the side of auction houses, but his work has forced them, and other dealers, take due diligence much more seriously. Nevertheless, the auction houses contend that the industry’s due diligence would benefit if the archives, which are technically owned by the Greek and Italian states, were to be made public, which so far they have declined to do. As for Tsirogiannis, he says that publishing the records could alert bad actors and push the market for illicit antiquities further underground.

Greek Storm

One of the best things about living in Greece has always been its climate. Mild, sunny and dry, with a short winter and an absence of violent weather. Unfortunately, this has been gradually changing over the last few years, with more rain in the spring months, warm winds and a muggy atmosphere. Sand storms blowing in from the Sahara have also multiplied (I wrote about it in my post, An Orange Sky  – https://athensletters.com/2018/04/11/an-orange-sky/), as have summer wildfires.

 

Photo:Google

The latest manifestation of this phenomenon was a terrible storm that hit the northern province of Halkidiki a few days ago, killing six people and causing a lot of damage. At least 100 others were injured, with 23 people hospitalised. A state of emergency has been declared, with dozens of rescue workers dispatched to help.

   

A study conducted by the Crowther Lab at ETH Zurich university, anticipates that by 2050 global temperatures will have risen by 2C from pre-industrial levels. Under these conditions, three quarters of the world’s 500 largest cities will experience dramatic changes in climate (a lot of large cities are near water, who’s level keeps rising.) The worst hit, among them Singapore and Jakarta, will develop weather patterns so extreme that they don’t currently exist anywhere on earth.

Weather patterns have always been cyclical, and are not only affected by the  antics of mankind. However, this is getting rather scary…

The Greek Freak wins again

For those of you who read my post, From Sepolia to the NBA (here), the Greek basketball player Giannis Antetokounmpo has won NBA Most Valuable Player of 2019. Someone whose parents were Nigerian immigrants and who, as a child, helped his family out by hawking stuff on street corners, has gone from strength to strength through talent, willpower and hard work. At the age of 24, he helped his team, the Milwaukee Bucks, win 60 games this season. He is the second Bucks player, after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to win this supreme accolade, and only the third non-American to do so. Watch his emotional acceptance speech below.

 

 

 

Giannis is hugely popular in Greece, where fans stay up at night to watch his matches from across the world. He is proudly referred to as Greek in the press, and has represented his country on several occasions. He is constantly lauding Greece and saying how grateful he is for the chances he got, although he did not get official papers until he was 18. It makes you wonder, what would have become of him, if he’d been stuck in one of those infamous refugee camps…

New elections in store

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras suffered a severe defeat in the European Parliament elections last Sunday, his party Syriza trailing the opposition New Democracy party by about ten points.

Syriza stormed the Greek political scene on an anti-austerity platform six years ago, then suffered a backlash after imposing cut-backs as part of a third bailout in 2015. This month the government introduced more than one billion worth of handouts in the form of tax cuts and pension payouts, unwinding some of the austerity measures—but it proved to be too late in the day, although the handouts may have averted an even steeper defeat.
Let us not forget that Greece lost a quarter of its economic output during an eight-year depression, which economists record as the worst contraction of any developed economy since World War II. Unemployment peaked at 28 percent in 2013 and remains at 19 percent.

 

Prime minister Alexis Tsipras

Voters punished the ruling Syriza party for broken promises but also for a deeply unpopular agreement signed by Tsipras to resolve a long-running name dispute with North Macedonia.

Tsipras has now announced a snap election, to take place in the coming month or so. The government’s current term was due to expire in October.

The high score of 33.2 percent of the vote won by the opposition party New Democracy suggests it might manage to energise a greater voter base in the coming month. It would need about 40 percent to rule outright, without a coalition partner.

New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis has promised a restart of the economy. He says he will lower tax on businesses from 29 percent to 20 percent in two years and lower income tax on farmers from 22 percent to 10 percent.
He also says he will seek to create 700,000 new jobs in five years and has pledged to bring home at least half a million of the 860,000 skilled workers who, according to the Hellenic Statistical Service, have left the country since 2009.

 

New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis

 

Of course, such promises are founded on the assumption that the economy will achieve an annual growth rate of around four percent per year, a goal which might not be so easy to achieve. The economic plan mostly hinges on a key promise to negotiate a new deal with Greece’s creditors, which would allow the government to spend less on repaying external debt and keep more money in the economy for reinvestment.

In his talks, Mitsotakis sounds optimistic if not bullish—but we’ve heard it all before. We just have to keep our fingers crossed.

Far from completed

Regular readers might remember my October 2015 post , ‘A Greek Church near Ground Zero’, about the project to build a new St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine in New York, after the old church was destroyed in the 9/11 terror attacks.

 

 

 

The shrine, which like the Oculus transit hub was designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, was supposed to glow at night and provide “a spiritual beacon of hope and rebirth,” as you can see in the picture above.
However, sixteen years after its destruction, the church is still far from finished. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, despite receiving $37 million in donations for the shrine, was unable to pay its bills, and the construction company stopped work a year ago.

 

 

The project’s price tag had meanwhile soared from $30 to $80 million, and apparently some of the donations were used to shore up the church’s dismal finances. The project is now being investigated by the US Attorney’s Office in Manhattan. Sadly, what was deemed to be the new face of the Greek Orthodox church in America has turned into a national embarrassment.

Last Saturday, 90-year old Archbishop Demetrios of America finally submitted his resignation to Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios, having resisted resigning  for a while, although urged to do so.

 

 

A sad turn of events indeed. Hopefully, some solution can be found for the project’s completion.

Natalia Mela, a grande dame of Greek sculpture

Greek sculptor Natalia Mela, or Nata as she was known, has died peacefully, aged 96. Nata Mela was a force of nature, zipping around her beloved island of Spetses on a motorized tricycle, puffing away on cigarillos and enjoying life to the full. She has left behind a body of work which adorns multiple collections, as well as various public places in Greece. For those who read my post about the naval commander Bouboulina,  it was Natalia who made her statue, which looks over the port on the island she loved for ‘its crystal light and transparent sea.’
Natalia Mela was born in 1923 to an illustrious Greek family, her ancestors being important figures of Modern Greek history. She was a tomboy, and defied convention, escaping the future her parents had planned for her, which she scornfully described as being ‘a housewife in pearls.’  She was Greek tennis champion in 1940, a nurse during the war, a student at a time few Greek girls went to university. She attended the Fine Arts School in Athens, where she studied under important artists, such as the sculptor Tombros. She also worked with famous architect Dimitrios Pikionis, and made sets for the theatre of Karolos Koun.
Nata made her studio in an old stable in an Athens courtyard, and obtained  a welder’s licence in order to work with metal. Her main inspirations were nature and mythology, and she used materials such as metal sheets and parts, chains, or even coins, to make her sculptures. She often made animals such as roosters, goats, bulls and doves, and she also loved working with marble and stone.
Her chaotic studio was a meeting point for the Athenian intelligentsia of the time, such as artistsTsarouchis and Moralis, and poets Embiricos and Elytis. She met and married architect Aris Konstandinidis in 1952; they had two children, to whom she devoted her time for a number of years, only to take up her work with a vengeance after they were grown, keeping at it until a very advanced age.
Nata loved life, and Spetses, where she first went with her parents as a child. She and her husband built a house there, to which she returned every year for long summers of relaxation and creativity. She liked to swim for a couple of hours every day, a habit she kept until old age.
I had the pleasure of meeting her on a couple of occasions, and she was a formidable presence. She will be much missed.

Remembering Yannis Behrakis

Yannis Behrakis, the Greek photojournalist who portrayed major events in politics, warfare, sports and society, has died from cancer at age 58. After joining Reuters 30 years ago, Behrakis covered many of the most tumultuous events around the world, including conflicts in Afghanistan and Chechnya, a huge earthquake in Kashmir and the Egyptian uprising of 2011.

 

 

Born in 1960 in Athens, Yannis Behrakis was one of the top photojournalists in the world and Chief Photographer of Reuters Greece. During his life, he earned multiple prestigious awards in Greece and abroad, such as the Greek Fuji Award News Photographer of the Year (seven times), News Photographer of the Year by the Fuji Awards Institution in London, Barcelona and Rome (1999,2002 and 2003), and First Prize in the General News Stories category by the World Press Photo Foundation in 2000, the most prominent world distinction in the photography industry.

In 2016, the Reuters photography team led by Behrakis, together with colleagues Alkis Konstantinidis and Alexandros Avramidis, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the refugee crisis in the Aegean. The team captured a series of images of migrants crowded on flimsy sea craft and their first moments upon reaching Greece. For this work Behrakis was also voted best photographer of the year in 2015 by the Guardian.

 

 

Behrakis was a talented and committed journalist, who won the respect of both peers and rivals for his skill and bravery.

“It is about clearly telling the story in the most artistic way possible,” veteran Reuters photographer Goran Tomasevic has said of Behrakis’ style. “You won’t see anyone so dedicated and so focused and who sacrificed everything to get the most important picture.”

Most of us have seen at least some of his iconic images, which captured the terror of battle, fear, death, intimidation, starvation, homelessness, anger and despair, but also love and courage.

 

 

In an obituary,  Reuters write: He recognised the power of an arresting image to capture people’s attention and even change their behaviour. That belief produced a body of work that will be remembered long after his passing.

“My mission is to tell you the story and then you decide what you want to do,” he told a panel discussing Reuters Pulitzer Prize-winning photo series on the European migrant crisis. “My mission is to make sure that nobody can say: ‘I didn’t know’.”

 

All photos Reuters.