“University Professor – Antiquities Looter”?

Professor Henry “Indiana” Jones seizing a “priceless artifact” from a South American temple.Source: Raiders of the Lost Ark © 1981 – Lucasfilm, Ltd.

Indiana Jones is the world’s most famous archaeologist – a death-defying adventurer who, in his attempt to “salvage” antiquities, leaves behind a trail of destruction. His main aim, we are left to believe, is the protection and preservation of cultural heritage because, as he often exclaims, these priceless objects belong “in a museum”. Professor Jones is often in a rush to save ancient artifacts as there is competition, ranging from private collectors, other government agents and ruthless and opportunistic archaeologists to fanatic indigenous tribes who are after him for pilfering their territory. One can easily write a book on the subject, and several scholars have already dealt with the “Indiana Jones phenomenon” with regard to cultural property, ownership and the trafficking of antiquities. After all, he and his friends were the “Raiders of the Lost Ark” – and as a blog has recently, and very amusingly, revealed Professor Jones would have failed in his bid for tenure, not least because a number of antiquities he procured for the museum of his College are lacking any “shred of documentation that can demonstrate the provenance or legal ownership of these objects”. [1]

Admittedly the de-contextualisation of ancient objects and their placement in a museum moves within the remit of the well-known “rescue fantasy” – the belief that without the West’s beneficial colonialism and imperialism the world’s cultural heritage, especially in source or export countries that are rich-in-art and antiquities, would have been destroyed.[2] So, is Indiana Jones a “University Professor – Antiquities looter” or simply too “fond of antiquity” (φιλάρχαιος)?

This question brings me to the first character of my 19th-century antiquities trafficking story in Greece: Athanasios Rhousopoulos (1823–1898), a professor of Archaeology in the University of Athens, an avid collector and one of the most important, if not the most important, dealers in art and antiquities in Athens between the 1860s and 1890s.[3] Educated in Constantinople, Athens, Berlin and Göttingen, Rhousopoulos was a member of the Athens Archaeological Society and a founding father of the National Archaeological Museum in the Greek capital. He wrote extensively on issues relating to ancient Greek literature, history, art and antiquarianism. A well-respected citizen with a wide network of friends in Greece and abroad, Rhousopoulos and his family home in downtown Athens became a point of contact for notable – often distinguished – foreign visitors to the Greek capital, including the Emperor of Brazil, Pedro II, and Empress Elizabeth of Austria. His “archaeological museum” comprised the finest and most extensive collection of antiquities owned by a Greek at the time. Numerous travelers who visited his house and admired his collection of antiquities offer vivid descriptions of this extraordinary assemblage of objects. Rhousopoulos’s high social standing, fluency in languages, and cosmopolitanism, together with his knowledge of ancient literature and art history, made him the perfect guide for Greek antiquities and an ideal host in a city of just 50,000 people. Although he was not the only Greek collector at the time involved in the trade, he was the most prolific. Unlike most European scholarly collectors, however, who largely used to exchange objects within a circle of acquaintances – often with no profit involved – Rhousopoulos is best described as a professional dealer whose collection resembled that of an impressive antiquities’ shop rather than a permanent private scholarly collection. As a dealer he was methodical, had a high social standing and academic credentials that the majority of the other Athenian dealers lacked.

The professor’s dealings in antiquities did not come under official scrutiny until 1865, when Panagiotis Eustratiades, the General Superintendent of antiquities of Greece at the time, made a note in his diary about the diverse nature and size of Rhousopoulos’s collection. A year later, his involvement in the sale and trafficking of antiquities became widely known, when a Corinthian aryballos appeared in the new acquisitions of the British Museum. Known as the “Aineta aryballos” this small perfume bottle (H: 6.5 cm) of the late seventh century BC was decorated with the head of a woman in profile on the handle plate surrounded by the inscription “I am Aineta”. Under the handle, a list of male names appears in nominative, most likely her lovers or admirers. Rhousopoulos, who had already published this vessel in 1862 in the Journal of the German Archaeological Institute in Rome, was accused by Eustratiades of smuggling antiquities. On the 28th of September 1866, Eustratiades recorded in his diary that from this case “it becomes apparent that Professor Mr Rhousopoulos, member of the Archaeological Society, for many years is selling antiquities”. And on the 22nd of December 1866, Eustratiades noted that Rhousopoulos is a “University Professor – Antiquities Looter”.

The “Aineta aryballos” (BM1865,1213.1).
Source: Annales de l’Institut de Correspondance Archéologique (1862, pl. A).

The first antiquities law of Greece, in force between 1834 and 1899, permitted conditionally the free sale of antiquities within the kingdom but prohibited altogether their exportation without authorization. It also recognized shared ownership between the state and the landowner for those antiquities discovered in private land. With the increasing pace of illicit activities and the development of archaeological enquiry, the law had to respond. Although a number of circulars were issued over its long period of use in an attempt to amend and improve its implementation, the law was often loosely interpreted and enforced or even overlooked, not least because the Greek archaeological service lacked the necessary personnel and the adequate financial support to supervise and control activities throughout the country. Through these loopholes and the state’s inactivity, individuals such as Rhousopoulos were able to build a huge collection of art and antiquities, the exact details of which remained largely unknown to the authorities.

In his defense regarding the sale of the “Aineta aryballos”, Rhousopoulos used the first antiquities law, making clear that “even if [the Superintendent] makes an alliance with the devil” he would not be able to prove him wrong.[4] He accused Eustratiades of being jealous and as someone who wanted to extinguish the professor’s passion for science and the protection of antiquities. And using Pindar’s words, Rhousopoulos decided to send a clear and rather ominous message to Eustratiades: “there are many swift arrows in the quiver beneath my arm”.

Although the Greek professor could sell the pot to anyone interested in buying it, he had to announce his intentions to the authorities so as to get the permission of a committee of three officials to assess its “value”. If rendered “useless” (άχρηστον”) for the Greek museums, because similar and better specimens already existed in their collection, it could be sold and potentially exported abroad. Otherwise, the government (or most frequently the Athens Archaeological Society) would try to buy it. Rhousopoulos, who was frequently a member of this committee of three officials and often acted as a consultant and evaluator in such cases, took the liberty, given the state’s inactivity in similar situations and lack of means, to sell the “Aineta aryballos” to the Consul of her Majesty’s Government and agent of the British Museum, Charles Merlin. Defending his actions, Rhousopoulos tried to define the object as “useless” since it was “of no artistic value, the size of an apple, only valued for 25 drachmas” for an inscription it bore, and since better examples already existed in his collection. Contrary to Rhousopoulos’s arguments, a search in the British Museum archives makes clear that the pot was actually sold for 1000 drachmas (three times the professor’s monthly salary). The General Ephor, who considered the pot rare and was unaware of its sale, accused Rhousopoulos of conniving to the aryballos’s unauthorized exportation.

The “Aineta aryballos incident” can be considered a milestone; not so much in the legal battles that followed regarding the illicit antiquities trafficking, but rather in the changing mentality and the moral dilemmas involved in their sale. For example, a few weeks after Rhousopoulos was fined for the sale of the aryballos, the Minister of Education, responsible for cultural affairs at that time, condemned the professor’s actions by remarking that “it is not appropriate for a member of the Archaeological Society to sell antiquities like the antiquities looters”. Richard Farrer, an Oxford don who inspected Rhousopoulos’s collection a few years after, was caught by considerable surprise when he and his company realized that every object in the professor’s collection had its price: “we sighed and thought of Athens, like Jugurtha of Rome, as ‘a place where all things are for sale: the city itself, if it could find a purchaser’”.[5] Rhousopoulos was finally stricken off the records of the Archaeological Society in the 1870s exactly on the basis that he was selling antiquities for profit and maintained offices and contacts abroad in order to facilitate his business in the antiquities market – actions that went against the principles of the Athens Archaeological Society.

Rhousopoulos’ feverish passion for antiquities was well known for a very long time. The Professor of Latin in the University of Athens, the erudite Stephanos Koumanoudis (1818–1899), who knew Rhousopoulos from when they were both young, remarked as early as 1846 that “doing the right thing, I am not mad (“αρχαιομανής”) about antiquities [as Rhousopoulos is], although I am a more genuine friend of the arts than many of those who are aficionados of things of the past” (“αληθέστερος φίλος των τεχνών”).[6]

These two individuals, both well-established members of Athenian society and university professors, represent two antithetical approaches with regard to the collection and trafficking of antiquities. Rhousopoulos’s approach is that of the antiquities dealer who is selling objects for profit as well as of the art collector, who in his attempt to build his own collection, has to exchange, buy and habitually sell objects. Rhousopoulos sees in this approach a way of protecting and salvaging the ancient material culture and even promoting Greece abroad; in one of his treatises he remarked that “the display of the Elgin marbles in London gave rise to the enthusiasm for the Parthenon, and, to a large extent, for the philhellenic sentiment and support in favor of Greece [during the war of independence]”.[7] By openly conducting his trade Rhousopoulos was of the opinion that he was salvaging antiquities, which would have otherwise gone underground or would have been destroyed altogether in fear of the authorities – a view shared by numerous (foreign) scholars at the time.[8] This “cosmopolitan” approach is still popular among those in favor of the antiquities trafficking. According to this view, of “cultural internationalism”, ownership of cultural objects should be shared with the world and should thus not be the privilege of certain states.

On the other hand, we have the state official, Panagiotis Eustratiades, and Rhousopoulos’s nemesis, Stephanos Koumanoudis – both excellent representatives of the second approach; that of “cultural nationalism”, in favor of banning the trafficking of antiquities altogether, controlling strictly the excavations and depositing the discovered antiquities in national museums.[9] With articles in newspapers and the wide circulation of the antiquities law, Koumanoudis, on behalf of the Athens Archaeological Society, tried to raise awareness of the damages caused by the acts of looting: “these are monuments of our ancestral art, upon which the glory of ancient Greece is partly based, and for which our country is respected and at the same time being envied for…we rely on your intelligence and patriotism to abide by the law.”[10] In this respect, looting, and not just the rhetoric of the first law, played a major role in informing and shaping modern Greek identity, especially with regard to the relationship between past material manifestations (“of our ancestral art”) and the present. For Eustratiades and Koumanoudis it was the demand of the market that led to acts of vandalism and not the archaeological legislation. Ownership rights, along with those of preservation and protection, should remain with the state where antiquities are discovered; a view today widely shared among “source” or export countries rich-in-antiquities. Interestingly, most of these countries emerged from turbulent situations, were politically and socially unstable, and were unable for a long time to control and regulate the trafficking of antiquities. Often the attempt to assert their ownership rights onto the past, as in the case of Greece, became entangled to politics and the formation of national identities. It is these countries that today demand, in many different ways, the return of antiquities they view as their own “national treasures” (see e.g., my first post).

This necessarily brief post offers a snippet of the changing mentalities and the different collecting attitudes within Greece in the course of the 19th century. A year after Rhousopoulos’s death, in 1899, the second antiquities law of Greece was introduced that removed the shared ownership, prohibited private excavations, introduced more severe penalties, increased the number of superintendents and recognized, for the first time, the illicit antiquities trade as a criminal offence.

Although Professor Indiana Jones was not an art dealer, his approach is closer to that of Rhousopoulos. After all he received payment for the procurement of ancient artifacts either from his government or his private employers who commissioned the acquisition of particular objects. As a university professor he was, apparently, less successful than Rhousopoulos. Yet both were actors in the same story – that of antiquities trafficking.

[2] For this notion see, e.g., Said, E.W. 1978. Orientalism (New York); this fantasy, a common topos in many Hollywood movies, should not, however, be confused with the genuine interest shown by Western scholarship in the advancement of knowledge, i.e., in preserving, documenting, and making available to the world community the art and archaeology of “source” countries.

[3] For those interested in the complete story, I offer a more detailed account in a two-part article in The Anglo-Hellenic Review (nos. 45–46 [2012]).

[4] Rhousopoulos’s defense discussed here derives from a letter he published in the Greek newspaper Elpis on February 4, 1867 (issue 1393), p. 3 (available for download here)

[5] Farrer, R. 1882. A Tour in Greece (London), p. 72 (available for download here).

[6] The extracts I am using here about Koumanoudis’s early views on Rhousopoulos come from the book of Matthaiou, S. and Karellos, P. 2010. Στέφανος Α. Κουμανούδης. Ανέκδοτα Κείμενα, 1837–1845 (Athens).

[7] Rhousopoulos, A. 1893. Ο Παρθενών, ήτοι διαμαρτυρία κατά πάσης διορθώσεως του Παρθενώνος και μέθοδος προς σωτηρίαν αυτού (Athens), p. 60 (the 1895 edition is available for download here).

[8] E.g., Reinach, S. 1883. “Le vandalisme modern en orient,” Revue des Deux Mondes 56, 132-166 (text available here).

[9] For a 20th and 21st century legal discussion on “ownership” and “cultural property” see, Stamatoudi, I. 2011. Cultural Property Law and Restitution. A Commentary to International Conventions and European Union Law (Northampton, MA).

[10] Ioannou, P. and Koumanoudis 1874. Ο Περί Αρχαιοτήτων Νόμος και Αι Σχετικαί προς αυτόν Εγκύκλιοι, Υπουργικαί και άλλα τινά εκδιδόμενα υπό της εν Αθήναις Αρχαιολογικής Εταιρίας προς Χρήσιν των κατά του Βασίλείου Αρχών και αυτών των Πολιτών (Athens), p. 6–8 (available for download here). Koumanoudis published numerous articles in the Greek press during the 1870s and 1880s in an attempt to expose the illicit antiquities trafficking and raise awareness among his compatriots.