Early on Friday, two masked gunmen broke into the Museum of the History of the Olympic Games in Antiquity in Olympia in western Greece and stole 65 artifacts after smashing the glass display cases. Only one guard was on duty; after she refused to hand over the objects, the gunmen (who had deactivated the alarm) tied her up and escaped with the objects to a car parked not far from the museum.
The general secretary of the Ministry of Culture, Lina Mendoni, said that there should have been three guards on duty. According to the Greek newspaper Kathimerini, the robbery occurred during a shift change; a second guard arrived shortly afterwards and a third guard was on leave. The robbery is the second major theft from a Greek museum this year: A Picasso painting, given by the artist himself, was stolen in January from the Athens National Gallery, along with a Mondrian painting and a sketch by Italian artist Guglielmo Caccia.
Culture Minister Pavlos Geroulanos has submitted his resignation though it is not clear if it has been accepted by Prime Minister Lucas Papademos.
The Panhellenic Federation of Employees of the Ministry of Culture said that Friday’s robbery was a “tragic incident” and that cuts to staff due to the austerity measures that Greece has had to implement are endangering archaeological sites and museums. Those who have demanded more and more austerity measures from Greece to repay its massive debt — the “troika” of the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund and also private lenders — were specifically mentioned. Two years of government-mandated layoffs have resulted in a shortage of 1500 guards and also of archaeologists, with the staff at many of Greece’s numerous archaeological sites only working part-time.
It goes without saying that the artifacts stolen — mostly bronze and clay figurines, lamps and vases — are priceless. A seal ring dating to the Mycenean era in the Late Bronze Age was among the items stolen.
Olympia, where the Museum of the History of the Olympic Games in Antiquity is located, is the site of the ancient Olympic Games which were founded in 776 B.C.E.. The town also has a larger museum, the Archaeological Museum of Olympia, which houses some of Greece’s most valuables treasures from the temples of Ancient Olympia.
To Vima, another Greek newspaper, noted that Friday’s theft was the first from an archaeological museum in 20 years. In early 1993, there were 14 robberies from Greek museums including those in Paros, Tegea, Sikyon, Rhodes, Santorini and Evia; these crimes remain unsolved and few of the objects have been recovered. All of the objects stolen from the Olympia museum are officially registered as national treasures and cannot be sold legally. About 200 antiquities were stolen from the Museum of Corinth in April 1990; almost all were recovered in September of 1999 in a warehouse in Miami. The two offenders were also involved in selling drugs and had not been able to resell the artifacts from Corinth. After this, the Hellenic Police said that such a theft “will not happen again” as the artifacts cannot be resold but, as To Vima comments, “the robbery in Olympia seems to contradict” all of this.
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Photo of the Temple of Zeus at the site of the ancient Olympic games by the author