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Greek-American Matthew Bogdanos on Repatriating Antiquities to Greece

NEW YORK – Greek-American Assistant District Attorney of Manhattan, Chief of the Antiquities Trafficking Unit, and colonel in the United States Marine Corps Reserves Matthew Bogdanos spoke with The National Herald just hours before 55 antiquities were set to be repatriated to Greece in a handover ceremony at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office on February 23. He noted his deep conviction that rings trafficking in antiquities could be hit hard if there was more effective cooperation and, most likely, an up-to-date legislation in the intermediate European countries they go through before being channeled to the underground markets.

“The objects that this office returns to Greece are the living legacy of a rich cultural heritage that has given light to the whole world. It is impossible to express in words the significance of these finds, whether it is an ancient kouros, the Minoan reliquary, or a bronze statue. They are really exceptional and they go beyond whatever meaning the words give,” Bogdanos initially said, speaking about the handover ceremony.

He clarified that the archeological items that will be returned to Greece are not only from the investigation of Michael Steinhardt’s collection, but also from a number of other investigations.

“I would like to clarify something about this, because I have heard other colleagues mention it: We are not just talking about Steinhardt objects. The handover event is a Greek repatriation ceremony. Most of the items do come from Steinhardt’s collection, but there are others that come from other investigations,” said Bogdanos.

The burden on intermediate countries

The fact that important ancient Greek finds seem to reach the hands of private individuals with great ease, through underground routes, raises concerns, not only about the audacity of the looters themselves, but about whether the Greek system can finally protect the rich cultural heritage of the country.

Matthew Bogdanos. Photo: Courtesy of Matthew Bogdanos

“I would like to make it clear that I generally do not believe that we should blame the victim of any crime, whether it is a sexual crime or the theft of archaeological treasures,” said Bogdanos, citing examples from other countries whose antiquities are vulnerable.

“Many countries have so many internal problems, such as a civil war, terrorism, internal unrest,” he noted. “So we live in a world with infinite problems and scarce resources. Some countries simply run out of these necessary resources to protect their cultural heritage. Take Lebanon for example. Does it have the money to pay a guard to protect the archeological sites? Or can Syria and Iraq?”

On the opposite side, regarding Greece, Bogdanos emphasizes that the problem is not so much in the guarding of archeological sites, as in the fact that the number of archeological objects that exist may not even be known, and is essentially incalculable.

“Wherever you go in Greece and dig, you will discover an archeological find. How many times have we seen construction on a building or a road that had to be stopped after an ancient find? No country on the planet can guarantee 100% of its archeological findings. “I do not think we should blame any country, but realize that as long as there are people who want to commit crime and plunder cultural heritage for profit, there will be looting of antiquities,” said Bogdanos, asking the obvious question, “how many packages can we check and how many stops can we make at the airports?”

“In host countries you cannot stop every package that comes in, no matter where it comes from. It is practically impossible. Do not forget the other: No archeological object comes directly e.g. from Crete to Kennedy. It passes through other European countries, receives forged documents and continues its course. These intermediate countries need to work together more. One such station is Germany. Some of these countries are stuck in the legislation of the ‘50s. We need more cooperation,” Bogdanos noted.

“Always proud as a Greek-American”

“If you ask me which archeological find or which repatriation ceremony I single out, it will be like asking me if I love one of my four children more,” Bogdanos said, when asked if his Greek origin is an additional motivation for him.

“The Greek origin it’s an extra incentive for me to be completely honest. Obviously, the fact that I come from Greece and my father is from Lemnos plays a role,” he added, noting that the reports of the archeological sites are an image in his mind.

“All these things are very important to me. It is not just the beauty of an archeological object. I know where these objects came from, I remember the archeological sites themselves,” he said, sending a message of pride to all Greeks.

“Continue to feel proud of our cultural heritage and the privilege of being called Greeks, because it is a privilege. Continue to earn this privilege, to earn it day by day,” Bogdanos concluded.


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