Early Cycladic marble female figure (2600–2400 BCE), currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The characters, and more so the plot, are somehow familiar, some would say even boring: a Fifth Avenue plutocrat, a philanthropist and benefactor of august institutions, and one who has happened to have been possessed by the “magic” power of the weird “idols” made in the Aegean Cycladic islands 5000 years ago; a major “encyclopedic” museum which has been in the news recently rather a lot, and all for the wrong reasons; another private museum in a peripheral country, created by a ship magnate family; and the government of that country, due to stand for re-election soon, and one that sees material cultural heritage as commodities.

The actors come together to forge a deal involving these strange objects, a deal which the New York Times would hail as “an inventive collaboration.” Repatriation, they said: A small county will receive the artifacts that left its soil, but not before they are taken out of the plutocrat’s living room and exhibited at the major museum down the road from his townhouse, and in an especially dedicated gallery bearing his name. A win-win situation, no? After all, was it not repatriation that the decolonial movements have been asking for, in the past decades?

I’m, of course, talking about the agreement under which Cycladic figurines and objects from the collection of New York billionaire Leonard Stern will nominally come under the ownership of the Greek State but in fact be transferred to a new entity which Stern set up together with a private museum in Athens. They will then be exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for up to 50 years.    

The New York Times article left many of the key facets of this plot out, facets which would have revealed a more interesting and at the same time disturbing story. It was down to the New York Post to state that this is a very controversial deal. In fact, no member of the Greek archaeological and museum community has come out in support of it, and to my knowledge, no specialist on Greek archaeology and heritage anywhere in the world has defended it.

But let’s take things from the start: Cycladic figurines are marble statuettes produced by the small-scale communities in the Aegean Cycladic islands in the third millennium BCE. A smaller number of them has been found in Crete, and an even smaller amount is still in mainland Greece and in western Anatolia (but in this case they belong to a specific type). They were mostly found in burials, although more recently several have been found in domestic contexts, and in some ritual deposits, most notably on the tiny Cycladic island of Keros, the focus of an ongoing, systematic archaeological investigation and the site of major illicit looting in the past.

Cycladic figurines are often called magical and enigmatic, plaudits that add to their appeal. But they are enigmatic for a reason. Archaeologically, we know very little about their role and meaning because they have been extremely unfortunate to attract, after millennia of neglect, the attention of modernist western artists, mostly in the second half of the 20th century. The likes of Picasso, Giacometti, and Moore were inspired by them and elevated them to the status of masterpieces, admiring in particular their perceived austerity and simplicity. They became part of the culture of “high art” and of the discourse on connoisseurship. Demand from rich collectors and museums rose dramatically, which led to the looting of many hundreds of archaeological sites, destroying for good the archaeological knowledge that comes from context and its detailed and careful study. As a result, the vast majority of Cycladic figurines currently in museums and collections lack provenance and are the outcome of looting. An industry of fakes also rose, and when using marble from the same islands it’s almost impossible to tell apart from the prehistoric originals. Many fakes were bought by major western museums and collectors, corrupting the whole corpus. This is all already well-known, staple diet for any undergraduate archaeological curriculum.

And here comes our lead character, Stern, who since the 1980s has amassed a significant collection of such figurines and other Cycladic artifacts. The Greek government keeps insisting that this collection was unknown to them until two years ago. Was that so? Parts of it were in fact exhibited at the Merrin Gallery in Manhattan in 1990 — including one piece on loan from the Brooklyn Museum — and featured in an exhibition catalogue. The collection was known to most specialists, and Stern himself spoke about it publicly in 2006, adding that was engaged in “sizeable transactions” in antiquities. Last month, he told the New York Post that he wanted to keep his collection intact, and approached the Met to donate it to them. The museum which has been raided six times in 2022 alone by the DA of Manhattan over looted artifacts, contacted Greece — the only country which can claim legitimate ownership of most of them. 

Following secret negotiations — in which even the current Prime Minister of Greece, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, took part — a deal was reached involving 161 objects. The agreement was signed between the Met, the Greek Ministry of Culture, the private Cycladic-Goulandris Museum in Athens (officially named The Museum of Cycladic Art), and a new entity named Hellenic Ancient Culture Institute (HACI), based in Delaware and created especially for the purposes of this deal. The directors of HACI are the president of the Cycladic-Goulandris Museum in Athens and two other members of the Goulandris family, Stern’s son, and the president of the Leonard Stern Family Foundation. The deal stipulates that the antiquities become the property of the Greek state, no questions asked, but the possession is transferred to HACI. The Met will exhibit the objects for at least 25 years (with the possibility of an extension to 50 years) and will receive an endowment to further promote this collection. Fifteen of the figurines will travel to Athens for a temporary exhibition, lasting a year. This close-doors exhibition opened at the Cycladic-Goulandris Museum yesterday, November 2, with the archaeological and heritage community protesting outside. After 10 years from the signing of the deal, some of the antiquities will periodically travel to Greece to be exhibited at the Goulandris Museum (and/or other museums suggested by them), in exchange for antiquities from Greece which will be loaned to the Met.

Does this sound like repatriation? The deal required parliament ratification (where it passed only with governmental votes) and as many critics have already noted, it violates many articles of the Greek archaeological law. Here, the collector-donor transfers possession partly to himself and partly to a private museum in Athens, which is part of the same cultural ecosystem: prominent scholars have for many years shown that the Cycladic-Goulandris Museum has been instrumental in fuelling demand for these objects, leading to mass looting. The museum’s justification and alibi, in a nation-state with strict archaeological laws, is that it keeps these objects in the country. This is the line of argument that the current government has also adopted in relation to this deal: they will come back to the country, in 50 years. But at what cost? Whitewashing the looting of archaeological sites? Transferring the possession of antiquities and the income generated from them to private museums that have been either created as a result of looting or are implicated in the handling of looted objects? Privatizing archaeological material heritage in general? Undermining all restitution claims by Greece and others? What about the reparations for the destruction of archaeological knowledge and context, the destruction, in fact, of the Early Cycladic worlds? And how are these objects to be presented and interpreted to the various publics, given the absence of any contextual information?

At a moment when the decolonizing of museums globally is gaining momentum, especially following the Savoy-Sarr report and various mobilizations, this sorry affair teaches us that any repatriation claims cannot rely on plutocratic, abstract aesthetics, nationalist principles married with extreme neoliberalism, and the inferiority complex of the crypto-colonized. The signatory parties want to see this as a model for other collections but it’s not certain that even this first case will lead to a happy outcome. The Association of Greek Archaeologists has already handed over evidence to the Public Prosecutor in Greece showing that some of the objects in the collection, if they are at all original, were undeniably coming from looted sites, including the ones from Keros; these specific ones were in fact mentioned in a 2005 book by the archaeologist Peggy Sotirakopoulou issued by the Cycladic-Goulandris Museum itself. And what if some of the objects in the deal prove to be fakes? This may turn out to be a tragicomedy after all.

Editor’s Note, 11/8/2022, 11:54am EST: A previous version of this article misstated the location of a 1990 exhibition in New York featuring items from Leonard Stern’s collection. This has been corrected.

Yannis Hamilakis is Joukowsky Family Professor of Archaeology and Professor of Modern Greek Studies at Brown University. His latest book is Archaeology,...