September 22, 2023

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White collar artifact

White collar artifact

“I am talking about mentalities, life attitudes, and phenomena that are not easy to prove in a report.”

There is an apt theory about “unknown” antiquities that have found, and continue to find, a prominent place in famous – and not only – American museums, primarily created in the 20th century, but also in private collections. They were, he says, “orphan children” living without care, abandoned and unprotected in poor countries, until, thanks to some benefactors, they were rescued in glass houses as they deserved.

This is what Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, said. But there is also the opposite. They are taken in by some self-proclaimed Saviors who demolish their humble abode, secretly flee the place of their birth, and quietly promote them to their fiercely attached fellows, who settle in golden prisons far from the society that nurtured them. And now they find themselves, without their consent, adopted by those who “killed” their parents.

With this rebuttal, Nicholas Zerganos has written and given new wings to investigative journalism, highlighting from 2003 to 2007, in Eleftherotypia, the Los Angeles Times, and The Independent, the works and days of the most powerful duo of US antiquities dealers. The World: by Robin Simes and Christos Michaelides, who spent their retreat in Shinoza where they coordinated their work with private collectors, museums, and auction houses.

Zirganos returns today with a novel that taps documents about many different cases. He “travels” from Athens, Patras, Mostar, Rome, Freiburg, Munich, London or Geneva, “enters” dark taverns and casinos, GADA and German workshops, Italian villas and in the stables of the Greek Far West. But not only that. At the same time, he traces the prosecution of antiquities with police dealings, the Greek-Italian cooperation of prosecutors, the Greek Mafia with its extortion, as well as the complicity of antiquities dealers small and large. But it also depicts the political, economic and media intertwining with interests that also touch on issues of cultural heritage. At the same time, it reminds us of the serious risks faced by anyone excavating all of this: be it a reporter, a judge, an archaeologist, or a police officer. That is why “you first ask about the suspect and then you arrest him”…

The author chose the title “Operation Nostos” for his novel (published by Topos), in which he speaks on behalf of antiquities who “missed the place where I was born.” Because he knows that once an ancient work of art crosses the borders of its homeland, it becomes very difficult and rare to bring it back, as its path will be covered by silence Evidence of its origin would be lost or willfully destroyed by illegal grave-digging and excavations, and a legal claim for its return would thus be impeded.

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During his 35-year career in media, Zirganos has been a combative and tireless reporter on international political and social issues—his first assignment was to cover Ceausescu’s downfall. However, his research has made him an additional focal link for the return of important antiquities proven to be the products of antiquities theft. These are the pristine ancient Marble (530 BC) and the Macedonian Golden Stephanie (4th century BC) which in 2007, during the premierships of Costas Karamanlis and Minister of Culture Giorgos Voulgarakis, were returned to Greece by the Paul Getty Museum, America’s largest private museum. These two unique works (today on display in public museums in Athens and Thessaloniki) can be found in the “Nostos” process, but in a different context. As he comments:

In my reports I wrote the adventure of Corrie and Stefanio, which also caused the resignation of Marion True, Curator of Antiquities at the Getty Museum. I was not interested in telling her a novel, nor working in accusatory literature. In Operation Nostos I record the essence of several cases Theft of antiquities, and I talk about situations, life situations, and phenomena that are difficult to highlight in a report. But there are signs to … stand out.

So I wanted to tell how the international network works which continues to behave sporadically and where Italians and Greeks are key players both on the ‘bad’ side and on the ‘good’ side. With the difference that in Greece there is a spider’s web within institutions, with a minority of corrupt or even dangerous people often dominating. At the same time, there is no continuity of public administration, the independence of the judiciary brings a question mark, the next minister can change policy on a particular issue, and so on. There are still inquiries stop with a ticket from the “higher”, with a promise of promotion or transfer. There are carbon cases of antiquities theft where defendants are considered “white” in the community thanks to their acquaintances, money, social image, or political support. So, in the novel, I talk about the events that happened, may happen, or could develop as I describe them.

“Operation Nostos” is a fiery story of the “doku fantasy” type wrapped in a new atmosphere of the novel, which will awaken the reading public and put the Minister of Culture in a very difficult position. Next to it will be the inconvenience of other big players in this cruel and profitable game, which has now spread in Far East, Arab countries and Russia, while at the same time some are cultivating a trend to remove stigma.

The public debate that has recently taken place in Greece, on the occasion of the political administration in collaboration with the Private Museum of Cycladic Art, over the controversial donation of a group of Cycladic Idols by the American businessman Leonard Stern, is typical. Zirganos documented the uncertainties raised by the group’s creation with his revealing research last December in “Ef. Plus.” But he explained that his account “neither opens nor closes this case, but rather captures the big picture” of a transnational crime spreading across the world.

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Operation Nostos highlights an illegal global pyramid-shaped smuggling network in classical Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman antiquities, where those with the biggest piece of the pie in this trade are a handful of people in Europe and the USA. In essence, these networks are criminal. Gravediggers, smugglers and middlemen who transport antiquities across borders are associated with criminal gangs often involved in the arms or drug trade, and who may have a foothold in the police.

However, in my opinion, the real archaeological is different. It may start in the black area, but quickly transitions to the gray area until it is almost white. There we meet respectable art dealers with galleries in Zurich, London or New York, and we also meet large auctioneers who buy purposefully from antique networks. None of them are “benefactors”. They merge with major curators and collectors seeking social recognition through art and cause an increased demand for antiquities. New demand raises prices and creates new markets and incentives for illegal mining.”

Without awareness, with direct and sharp language, the author analyzes the patterns of the archaic act as well as its oppression from many angles, through twelve characters. The main narrator is Alexis Krass, an anxious but disarmed reporter with the germ of the investigation. Karras enters the fight against antiquities, and ends up working collectively as a member of the “Internationale of Good” – journalists, archaeologists, judges and police officers from Greece, Italy, Britain and the USA.

In a parallel track, the Antiquities Prosecutor of Security, Grigoris Georgiou, struggles to do his job under a corrupt system, where “if you show you know dirt, you’ve stepped on it”. The two will meet for the first time in the middle of the novel and team up against the ruthless circles of the powerful “Evil International”, which includes from gangsters to ministry officials and even the police. An occasion for Zirganos to make toxic comments that turn a blind eye to the Greek political scene, about black money, cover-ups, reparations, concealment of responsibilities, abuse of power, etc.

The novel progresses like a spiral that renews the suspense and additionally reveals to the readers some secrets of the high temperature. Such as the raid carried out by the Swiss police and the Italian carabinieri jointly with the competent public prosecutor on the storage areas of the “Free Port” in Geneva, where goods of all kinds end up without any customs control. In this “black hole” 1,657 artifacts, 140 icons and 85 paintings were found, with a total value of at least 150 million euros, thanks to the maneuver of the Italian Public Prosecutor.

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This is a real event among many in the book, as well as some disturbing documents promoted by the Greek Ministry of Culture.

There we will also meet Anna Sironi, Secretary General and then Minister of Culture, who is not Lina Mendoni herself but “what she exudes”, as the author tells us. “And its position does not refer to a specific political space, but rather to power along the lines of the Greek. Tsaroni are like the “Numan” with their chiefs and their intrigues and moves are not dictated by institutional interest, but by personal interests. In the novel there are several characters inspired by real people, through which the historical continuity of the archaeological network is emphasized and persecuted.

Thus, the narration begins. With the death, under mysterious circumstances, of Nikolaos Papageorgiou, a character inspired by Christos Michaelidis who died under mysterious circumstances in 1999. He was the partner of Robin Sims and the duo’s estate – with a large number of “orphan” relics – has become the subject of reports, documentaries and books.

In contrast, “Daughter” and “Stephanie” in “Operation Nostos” serve as the legend of Ariadne in the labyrinth of “collar” traces. But the author does not triumph with the justification of his protagonists, the reporter Krass, the policeman Georgios and the prosecutor Dubis.

Zirganos knows that a country can boast because its prestige is maintained every time a work of ancient Greek or Hellenistic art is brought home. But he is quick to sow doubts in his readers. Because in the end not all truth shines out. The relics brought home in 2007 have polished the image of J. But in the end, middlemen, antiquities dealers, museum curators, midwives, and “parties” at the higher levels of government and public administration get away with it. In the novel, the International of Good is dissolved, while the archaeological circle is preserved. The battle has been won, but not the war. And next time, for Karras and Giorgio, the search will have to start over.

Zerganos says: “The antiquities market is starting to move today to the emperors of China and the Arab world who deal with antiquities as an investment and preserve them well without displaying them and without feeding them publications and studies, as they did in the past. Museums or traditional collectors. This new treaty opened a public debate, which should also Taking it to the level of the European Union in order to change the rules of the game and obtain a more transparent and strict regulatory framework that obliges the owners of antiquities to present their provenance and the legality of their possession.