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Emory museum returns artifacts with dubious history to Greece

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Emory museum returns artifacts with dubious history to Greece

Ravi V. Bellamkonda, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at Emory, and Lina Mendoni, the Minister of Culture for the Hellenic Republic, sign an agreement of cultural cooperation at a ceremony at the Michael C. Carlos Museum on Monday. Photo by Grace Donnelly

By Grace Donnelly, contributor

Atlanta, GA — Emory University returned three items from the Michael C. Carlos Museum collection to Greece on Monday after confirming that the antiquities were illegally acquired or trafficked. 

The agreement for repatriation, signed by the Emory University Provost Ravi V. Bellamkonda and the Hellenic Republic’s Minister of Culture Lina Mendoni on Monday at the Carlos Museum, comes after 15 years of questions about the origins of pieces in the museum’s Greek and Roman collection. 

These items were “documented beyond doubt” as illegally trafficked, Mendoni said, with evidence showing that the artifacts were looted or illicitly excavated before the Carlos Museum purchased them in 2002 and 2003.

Emory has amassed an impressive classical art collection, with more than 1,100 pieces of Greek and Roman art and artifacts. Greece initially asked that Emory return looted pieces in 2007. At least 218 of the items in the Carlos Museum’s collection can be tied to people convicted or indicted on charges related to antiquities trafficking or falsifying antiquities’ provenance information, according to a 2023 analysis by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The agreed-upon Greek repatriations include a bathtub (called a larnax) from the Minoan culture in Crete during the 14th century BCE, a marble seated figure from the 4th century BCE, and a statue of a goddess (thought to be Terpsichore, goddess of dance) from the 2nd century BCE.

To see photos of the repatriated items, click here.

In addition to returning these artifacts, Emory and Greece are re-committing to a longstanding relationship through cultural cooperation that will create more opportunities for Emory students and staff to participate in excavations in Greece and collaborations with museums in Greece on special exhibits at the Carlos. 

As major museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum were called out for looted items within their galleries, universities came under scrutiny as well. Princeton, Cornell, and Fordham Universities have all returned artifacts in recent years. 

The Ministry of Culture in Greece has been working to provide evidence of looting for these pieces in Emory’s collection since 2019 and issued an official repatriation request in 2021. That year marked “an obvious shift in the stance of the Carlos Museum,” Medoni said, under the leadership of new director Henry S. Kim. 

“I really cannot stress enough how important this is also from the educational and academic point of view, when such a gesture originates from a museum directly related to a university,” Medoni said. It teaches young scientists ethics and values, “including respect for the cultural inheritance of each country, which are an integral part of its identity and dignity.”

Prior directors and curators at the Carlos Museum had been aggressive in their efforts to build Emory’s collection, often looking past missing details about the origins of items that should set off alarm bells about illegal antiquities trafficking. After Greek officials reached out to Kim with concerns, he traveled to Athens last year to review the evidence and speak with experts in person. 

“That was probably the most important stage of this process,” Kim said. “Each side had developed their own hypotheses, and it was a very important thing to be able to work with one another to understand what was the most likely history behind each one of these objects.” 

In the last four years, the museum has established a full-time provenance researcher position, dedicated to learning more about the histories of these ancient objects. 

There are still more than 500 artifacts in the Carlos Museum’s collection that have ties to shady previous owners. Emory is in “close conversation” with ministries of culture in Italy and Egypt about evidence of looted objects, provenance researcher Annie Shanley said. 

Shanley and Ruth Allen, curator of Greek and Roman Art, emphasized that provenance is an iterative process and that the museum experts want to make their findings available to the public as they unearth the stories of these antiquities. 

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