Critics ‘angry’ over Greece’s arts deal with Leonard Stern
According to billionaire Leonard Stern, it is doing a “great thing” for art lovers in Greece and America. But some Greek politicians, historians and scholars of art disagree.
At the center of this controversy is an esteemed collection of antiquities from the Cyclades islands off the coast of Greece, dating back thousands of years and worth millions of dollars.
Stern returns the sculptural works to Greece, which is on a mission to retrieve his undocumented antiquities. Although Greece acknowledges that there is no evidence that items in the collection were illegally removed, skeptics question the arrangement Stern made with the country.
“Without taking the time to research the collection, the Greek Ministry of Culture does not know the provenance of the objects and even how many of them may be fakes,” Christos Tsirogiannis, associate professor at the University’s Museum of Ancient Cultures from Aarhus in Denmark, told the Post. “The deal is completely embarrassing and unacceptable.”
“I am angry,” added Sia Anagnostopoulou, a member of the Greek parliament. “We have all the legal tools and mechanisms, and we could, as a country, have the antiquities returned unconditionally.”
Stern earned much of his $7 billion fortune through his family’s privately held Hartz Mountain Industries, a real estate development company. He told the Post that he first became fascinated by these sculptural works when he was 14 and spent decades building the 161-piece collection. Now, “dealing with the reality of my own mortality,” he wants the works to stay together after his passing.
“I see what’s happening to art collections,” Stern, 84, told The Post. “People die, the collection is inherited; the heirs divide it and the collection loses its magic. When this collection was with me, if you saw it, you would understand its magic power.
In a bid to ensure the magic remains, Stern worked with Greece’s Minister of Culture, Lina Mendoni, to devise an elaborate plan that places the art with non-profit organization Hellenic. Ancient Cultural Institute, based in Delaware. As to why it was done this way, Stern will simply say, “This is how it was structured. My professionals worked with their professionals and that’s how they structured it. That’s what I was advised to do. »
According to an agreement approved by the Greek parliament, “the Greek state is the sole owner of the collection”.
In Stern’s case, Tsirofiannis said, “Since he wants to repatriate the collection to Greece, it should be delivered to the nearest Greek embassy. That’s what he should do.
Instead, start in November, 15 pieces will be exhibited at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens until 2024. Then, for at least 10 years, the collection will be loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for display. Fifteen years later, parts of the collection will be displayed in Greek museums in exchange for similar pieces loaned to the Met by Greece. In 2049, Greece may grant the Met the right to exhibit the works for up to 25 more years. Otherwise, whatever remains at the Met will be shipped to Greece and put on display there.
The arrangement has been approved by the Greek parliament, but not all MPs are happy.
“I voted against,” said Anagnostopoulou, who is also a history teacher. “We asked Miss Mendoni to give us papers proving where the collection came from and that it had been legally exported from Greece.” Anagnostopoulou told the Post that she has yet to see those documents. “They wanted to legalize the collection… Why the Greek ministry decided to do this is a mystery.”
This is a particularly delicate situation given that Greece has long been plagued by looting and illegal export of its most valuable artifacts. “The repatriation must be done without detour. Here we have antiquities without provenance that are donated to a foundation and loaned to a museum, the Met, which is known to be involved in the illegal acquisition of antiquities,” Tsirogiannis said, referring to some $13 million. antique dollars confiscated from the museum last month. “Then it ends in the United States for 25-50 years before finally returning to Greece. It is not a repatriation. This benefits institutions that have no right to be involved. The biggest scandal is that this is accepted by the Greek state.
“I identified a piece from the notorious illicit antiquities dealer Gianfranco Becchina,” he told The Post, referring to an Italian antiquities dealer who in 2011 was convicted of smuggling looted antiquities.
Tsirogiannis claims to have identified, from a photograph, a marble figure in Stern’s collection as corresponding to a piece Becchina owned.
“They have at least one piece that matches [an antiquity] in the trafficker’s archives. It is the same piece that had been collected by Stern. Over 5,500 items have passed through Becchina’s hands and have been shown not to be legal,” Tsirogiannis said, acknowledging that the piece in question is not necessarily illegitimate. “Leonard Stern should have proof of legal origin for every piece.”
Stern told the Post that the 161 works were purchased from legitimate sources often vetted by the late Cycladic sculpture scholar Pat Getz-Preziosi — and have strong pedigrees.
“Experts examine every piece. Sometimes they say it’s not right. Then I go back to the dealer and don’t buy it,” Stern said. “Prior to [being part of] this collection, many pieces have been exhibited at the Getty and the Met. Then when they came up for auction, I bought them.
As for allegations that one of the coins may have passed through the hands of the alleged smuggler, Becchina, Stern firmly insisted, “I don’t know anything about Becchina. I never bought anything from him. I never heard the guy’s name until last week. To my knowledge, these coins have not been looted.
He is also stunned by the controversy: “I am shocked, really shocked, that someone, for their own publicity, created a negative here.”
Stern hopes his approach will serve as a model for other older collectors who want to see their collections intact. “Nobody has ever done anything like that,” he said. “Usually [countries such as Greece] fight to recover their belongings and do not succeed. It would be very expensive and terribly difficult work. I wanted to find a long-term goal for this collection, where my grandchildren could see it, and I did.