International Archaeology Day, celebrated on October 16 every year, is a time to take stock of the pieces of looted art and antiquities from all around the world that are still missing and consider how much of our global cultural heritage has been lost through this kind of theft.

Greece has been no stranger to this tragedy of stolen heritage, which with some antiquities amounts to a culture genocide; of its list of missing antiquities worldwide, currently Interpol has no less than 1,159 that were taken from Greece. 

Ranging from an unknown female marble sculptural figurine from the Late Hellenic or Early Roman times, to a head dating back to the Archaic Period that was chipped away from a frieze, to priceless Byzantine-era icons, the list is a long and ignominious one.

Archaeological sleuths such as Greece’s Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis have dedicated their lives to finding treasures such as these and getting them repatriated back to their original countries. Museums around the world have historically engaged in shady deals with people who call themselves art collectors but who are indeed nothing more than thieves or middlemen at best, in the trade in looted antiquities.

The famous case of the 4th-century BC gold wreath from Macedonia which was once worn by an unknown nobleman is just one of the best-known and most visually spectacular of these looted antiquities.

Used as a case study by Greek scholar Bettina Tsigarida as part of her master’s thesis, the infamous theft was the result of not only the original looting but of Greek and other authorities looking the other way, as well, allowing such cultural theft to take place. In addition, the Getty Museum’s acquisition of the golden wreath was made possible by what can only be charitably described as sloppy record-keeping on the part of one of the world’s largest museums.

The sum total of what can happen to a looted objet d’art or artifact can be seen in the Odyssey taken by the gold wreath in its journey from a grave to the Getty Museum, located in in Los Angeles, California.

Finally taking its rightful place in the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki in 2007, there was no guarantee that this happy ending would ever become a reality.

And it would not have happened at all without the likes of Dr. Tsirogiannis; journalist Nikolas Zirganos; prosecutor Ioannis Diotis; the then-head of the Greek police’s art squad, the late police Captain Giorgos Gligoris; and two Greek lawyers, Costantinos Kyriopoulos and Renia Stamatoudi.

They not only successfully liberated the priceless golden wreath from Macedonia but a marble archaic kore statue from Paros, a funerary stela from Orchomenos and a votive relief from Thasos Island as well, which had all been in the holdings of the huge Los Angeles museum.

The golden wreath, depicting myrtle flower branches, even still has some traces of green and blue enamel on it after the passage of millennia. Dating back to late 4th century BC, its first appearance on the black market for looted art dates back to 1990.

 An Italian man called Gianfranco Becchina received two photographs of the wreath that had been sent to him by a Greek smuggler in 1990. However, they did not come to an agreement as to the price for the wreath; it then somehow appeared in Munich in 1992.

It was part of an art exhibition in February of that year in Germany. A Serbian who went by the name of Kovacevits, and two Greek men named Tsatalis and Kagia, feasted their eyes on the treasure as part of the exhibition.

A painter, George Seliachas, told the three men that if they wanted to make deal for it, a good person to contact might be Christophe Leon — who ended up being the one to sell the wreath to Getty after stating on the official acquisition papers that it had come from a “private Swiss collection.” Conveniently, Leon hadn’t even filled in the box for the name of the country of origin for the priceless wreath. The Getty gave Leon a cool $1,150,000 for the looted grave goods, which had once graced the head of a Macedonian nobleman or noblewoman. However, questions had been asked of officials in Greece and Italy as to the provenance of the artifact and whether or not it had been stolen — to which the Greek officials answered in the negative.

After the Greek Art Squad asked the Ministry of Culture to work with it to get to the bottom of the theft, the Ministry refused, telling them in a confidential memorandum that it was taking care of the issue by diplomatic means. Greek journalist Nikos Zirganos unearthed these documents, publishing his exposé of the case in Epsilon magazine.

Eventually, Greek officials made a 180-degree turn, opening up a criminal investigation –not only of the Getty Museum but its curator as well. As a consequence, Marion True, Christoph Leon, the two Greek looters (now named as Georgios Tsatalis and Georgios Kagias) and the Serb middleman, Kovasevic, had charges brought against them in November of 2006.

Thanks to the tireless work of Tsirogiannis and the others, Greece negotiated the return of three other antiquities from the Getty as well — resulting in the repatriation of a 5th century BC marble relief from Thassos, a grave stele from Boeotia dating back to 400 BC. and a Kore statue.

All of the priceless looted artifacts finally returned home to Greece on March 26, 2007. The wreath now is displayed in all its splendor in the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki.

A special exhibit titled “The End of Antiquities Trafficking” was staged in 2007 at the Museum to highlight the cultural theft represented by these repatriated treasures. With a special section titled “The Abduction of History,” it highlighted the extraordinary objects that thankfully had been repatriated due to the efforts of Tsirogiannis and others.

Tsirogiannis told Greek Reporter in an exclusive interview this week “This wreath is a unique late 4th century B.C. artifact made by a highly-skilled Greek artist in central Macedonia, at the area around Thessaloniki. Other wreaths made with this technique and characteristics are attributed to the same Greek workshop.

“This wreath was most probably looted from a tomb, which remains unknown to us, so the story of the distinguished ancient Greek who was buried with this wreath and an unknown number of other artefacts, is erased and lost forever, because some people chose to steal from all of us and profit by selling our looted common heritage.

The subsequent trafficking took this wreath in the early 1990s to Germany and then to California, at the Getty museum, before we managed to bring it back to our homeland in 2007. I will always be proud for being one of the six-member team that represented Greece and brought this significant archaeological object back.”

But that kind of dogged determination on the part of art sleuths is rarely rewarded with such spectacular results. In its recent video on the subject of looted art, Interpol officials say that, tragically, there has been no letup recently in the trade of looted art and antiquities; quite the opposite is the case.

“The coronavirus has created a global crisis that threatens our shared cultural heritage. The antiquities coalition has already documented a worrisome increase in conditions that make the looting and the illicit trafficking of cultural material more likely right now. Tragically, we expect to see more looted artifacts on the market.” 

The Antiquities Coalition is now taking action to combat this shameful global trade.

Perhaps most disturbingly, looting — including from national museums — is helping to fund insurgency and civil war in a country that the UN says is suffering the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, Interpol notes. A case in point is a stunning alabaster stone with inscriptions from the third century AD that was taken from the Awam temple in Marib, Yemen as a result of the ongoing insurgency in that embattled nation.

For his part, Tsirogiannis is happy to continue to do what he can do ensure that priceless works of art that are part of his own heritage are returned to their rightful owners in Greece. He says that he is gratified that his life’s work has had an impact, stating “I am glad as a Greek, but also as a citizen of the world, I am contributing to helping governments repatriate their cultural property.” He tells Greek Reporter that his respect for our ancient ancestors is what drives him:

“It is the responsibility we have to our ancient ancestors and their feelings that have been brutally violated by the barbaric extraction of these objects. Some of these objects were buried in the tombs of the ancient people. They were dedicated to them. People grieved for their loss. They put these objects there with love and affection. Other objects were at the homes of ancient people, or they were dedicated to ancient gods, placed in sanctuaries and temples.” 

Tsirogiannis says “Thousands of years later, it is sacrilege for these antiquities to be looted for money and profit. This is what drives me mostly to continue my research.”