Letter From Athens: Why Doesn't Greece Want Back Aphrodite, Winged Victory Statues?


(Photo: Greek Police via Eurokinissi)

The greatest treasure in the Louvre in Paris isn't the Mona Lisa, which looks like a postage stamp from behind the cordons where you'll stand with throngs of people gushing and ooing over Leonardo Da Vinci's masterpiece.

The real prizes are Greek statues: Aphrodite, bastardized into Venus de Milo, spirited off the island of Milos, where it was found by a Greek farmer in 1820 inside a buried niche of ancient city ruins, with French officials buying it from the occupying Turks – who didn't own it, and trying to justify it by compensating the man who found it.

The other is the Winged Victory of Samothrace, from another Greek island, and perhaps the greatest single Hellenistic sculpture, along with the Aphrodite, which is thought to be the work of Alexandros of Antioch and a singular work of genius. She stands in a hallway, and brings you up short as you walk through it.

Famed art historian H.W. Janson described the Winged Victory, or Nike, as “the greatest masterpiece of Hellenistic sculpture,” although you could argue it's a tie with Aphrodite. The Nike, believed carved by the Rhodian sculptor Pythocritus, stands just over eight feet high.

The statue was discovered in April 1863 by the French consul and amateur archaeologist Charles Champoiseau, who stole it and sent it to Paris, making him the French Lord Elgin, the Scottish diplomat who at that time stole – ah, bought from the Turks who didn't own them – priceless marbles off the Parthenon and sold them to the British Museum, best known for thievery.

For 156 years the Greek statue of Winged Victory has been the cornerstone display in the main hall of the French museum, the Daru staircase, that leads to the Mona Lisa. Get a look at Nike. It makes the Mona Lisa look like graffiti.

What's inarguable, as various committees around the world, and now the new Greek government of New Democracy, steps up the case that the stolen Parthenon Marbles should be returned to their homeland, is that Aphrodite and Nike should come back too.

The only problem is that no one in Greece seems to want them. No government has made a real case that they are just as stolen as the Parthenon Marbles, were created by Greek hands, and belong back in Greece. Where's the Committee for the Restitution of Aphrodite and Nike?

We put the question to new Culture Minister Lina Mendoni's office but got no response so don't look to her for any help, and maybe not even Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who said he wanted the Parthenon Marbles loaned to Greece instead of returned.

Where's the outrage that the Louvre has these stolen Greek treasures? Why isn't there an international outcry? Why does the British Museum rightfully get hammered for keeping stolen goods, the theft backed by director Hartwig Fischer as “a creative act”?

That's what the British do, steal and plunder since they can't create, but you'd like to think better of the French, who have produced some of the world's most invaluable works of art and should have the decency to give back to Greece what is Greece's unless they want to say that wrongfully acquiring the statues was a creative act.

Here's how the Louvre proudly promotes showing off the stolen Aphrodite: “Discover the Venus de Milo at the Louvre Museum…considered to be one of the world's greatest masterpieces of sculpture. The mystery surrounding it, the typical techniques of the Hellenistic Age, the beauty of its shape and curves...Louvre Museum in Paris can boast that it owns one of the most beautiful sculptures in the world.”

You know why they keep it? They advertise why. “Each year the Venus de Milo draws tens of thousands of visitors who come to admire the legendary work up close in one of the most prestigious museums on the planet.” Tours start at 39 euros ($42.62) so get your tickets on line to avoid the lines to see it. Maybe the Louvre can put Aphrodite and Nike in the same section and call it Stolen Greek Treasures.

Winged Victory shows the headless, armless remains of the winged Greek goddess of victory, Nike, as she lands on a ship’s bow atop a flat base. The work’s flowing garments, energized pose with right leg extended and outstretched wings point to an expert rendering in the high-quality Parian marble, Louvre officials have said.

Greece's former ruling Looney Left SYRIZA had no interest in getting back the Parthenon Marbles, which then-Premier Alexis “Elgin” Tsipras said belonged to the world, not Greece, stopping British lawyer Amal Clooney, wife of actor George Clooney, from continuing to press a suit for their return.

If he wants to stand out and stand up, Mitsotakis should make this case but don't look for it because so far he asked French President Emmanuel Macron to have the Louvre loan to Greece another stolen antiquity, a fragment off the Parthenon depicting a mythical battle between centaurs and men.

According to the Louvre, the frieze was found at the foot of the Parthenon in 1788 by French diplomat Louis Francois Sebastien Fauvel, which makes its stolen too so why doesn't Mitsotakis demand the return instead of pleading for a loan?

And then display the frieze, Aphrodite and Nike in Greece on March 25, 2021, marking the 200th anniversary of independence.