“Sadly, the best candidate for him, the beautifully carved [head] 3, facing right, was stolen from the Agora’s dig house in 1955, while the Stoa of Attalos was under construction.” This sentence caught my attention while reading “Classical Sculpture from the Athenian Agora, Part 2: The Friezes of the Temple of Ares (Temple of Athena Pallenis),” published in Hesperia 88 (2019) by Andrew Stewart and seven co-authors (E. Driscoll, S. Estrin, N. J. Gleason, E. Lawrence, R. Levitan, S. Lloyd-Knauf, and K. Turbeville). Further below in the catalog entry for the head, the exact date of the theft is also mentioned: August 22, 1955.
Stewart et al. refer to a fragmentary male head of high craftsmanship that was found in the Athenian Agora near the northeast corner of the Temple of Ares in 1933. Carved around 430-425 B.C. and identified as Hermes, the small head (H.: 0.147m) is one of forty-nine half-size marble fragments which once decorated the friezes of the Temple of Ares in the Agora (originally the Temple of Athena Pallenis at Pallene). A plan of the Agora with the findspots of the sculptures is included in the Hesperia article, and is also available at https://ascsa.net.
Thefts occur in even the best guarded museums and libraries. Every institution has its own story (or stories) to share or hide. And at least some thefts are committed by those who have “hands-on” access to the collections. A recent example was the return of two valuable journals of Charles Darwin, which were stolen two decades ago from the library of Cambridge University. Others remain lost–the paintings stolen from the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990, or the Telephus head, an original by Skopas, removed from the Tegea Museum in 1992.
But back to the little head of Hermes that was inventoried as S 305. I was curious to discover more about its theft. A search in the Archives of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter) yielded considerable information about the event and its aftermath.
On September 6, 1955, the School’s Director, John L. Caskey, found himself in the unpleasant position of reporting to the Chair of the Managing Committee, Charles H. Morgan, that “one of the fine small marble heads from the Altar of Ares in the Agora was stolen recently. You will remember that a series of these heads was on a window sill in the inner courtyard. The head was twisted out of its plaster base. The loss was reported to the Ephor, the Symvoulion discussed it (not unsympathetically, according to George Mylonas), the police were notified, and small notices appeared in the papers. Modiano, who is very alert, picked it up immediately and put a bit in the Times of London. I wonder whether the story reached America. There’s nothing more we can do except, as Homer [Thompson] says, hurry up and move to the Stoa” (AdmRec Box 318/5, folder 8). [The photo on the left and its title are reproduced from Stewart et al. 2019.]
There was a delay of about two weeks between the theft (August 22) and Caskey’s report to Morgan because the School’s Director was not informed immediately. Apparently the staff members of the Agora were slow to convey the news either to the School’s Director or to the Ephor of the Acropolis, John Meliades. Eugene Vanderpool, who was in charge of the Agora Excavations when its Director Homer Thompson was in America, wrote to Thompson on August 29 (seven days after the theft). “Meliades came down this morning and I told him all the details. He was sympathetic and helpful. Later in the morning I took him a written account of the affair drawn up by Kyriakides [Aristeides Kyriakides was the School’s lawyer]… [and] I enclosed several pictures” (Homer A. Thompson Papers, box 68, folder 4).
Since the head had never been published, Meliades urged Vanderpool “to publish it as soon as possible so as to make public the claim to it.” The next day Vanderpool supplied journalist Makis Lekkas of Vima (BHMA) and Nea (NEA) with a short text and a photo which gave the appearance that the Hermes’ head had just been found during cleaning operations in the area of the Temple of Ares. Vanderpool further suggested to Thompson that the theft should be included in the School’s Annual Report, “so that it will become known in the scholarly world. Then if an attempt is made to sell it to a museum it can be identified. Meliades tells me that if a foreign museum buys it, the Greek Gov[ernmen]t can reclaim it as stolen property under existing international agreements.” As planned, on August 31, a short piece appeared at NEA, titled “Σημαντικά ευρήματα εις την Αρχαίαν Αγοράν” (Important finds at the Ancient Agora).
Meliades immediately reported the theft to the Archaeological Council. An off-the-record note by Mylonas, who was present at the Council’s meeting, suggested that members were understanding and “that while it was too bad, such things do happen occasionally.” The Minister of Education, who presided over the Council, personally telephoned the police and reported the theft (Homer A. Thompson Papers, box 68, folder 4, Vanderpool to Thompson, Sept. 1, 1955).
The Cat’s Out of the Bag
Just as he was about to mail his letter, Vanderpool rushed to add a last-minute postscript: “It looks as though the cat were out of the bag. Today’s NEA reports the theft, having gotten it from police bulletin. Modiano [the Greek correspondent in London] called up at 12.10 for more details… and it will be in London Times.” On September 2, the London Times published a note together with a photo of the stolen head: “500 B.C. Bust Stolen from Museum.” By then the Director of the School must have also found out about the theft although there is no mention of Caskey in the dispatches that Vanderpool sent to Thompson or in all their dealings with the Archaeological service.
After that initial interest, the press dropped the matter quickly, but not the Archaeological Service. On September 9, Spyridon Marinatos, Director of Antiquities, Christos Karouzos, Director of the National Archaeological Museum, and Ephor John Meliades visited the “scene of the crime” and met with Vanderpool. Three days later Caskey received an official reprimand signed by the Minister of Education, Achilleas Gerokostopoulos. In it, the School was accused of having inexcusably delayed, almost by a week, in informing the Service of the theft. As a result, the police had lost valuable time. The School was also reproached for not storing such a prime piece of sculpture in a safer location; instead it was in an exposed and unsecure location. Finally, by not publishing it for twenty-two years, the School had made repatriation more difficult in case it had already been smuggled outside Greece (Homer A. Thompson Papers, box 111 folder 1, enclosed in a letter from Caskey to Thompson, Sept. 16, 1955).
“The School gets a black eye out of this, which could have been avoided if we had reported the loss to Meliades at once. In the future I’d like to hear from the Agora staff immediately whenever anything happens that may affect our standing or relations with the officials and the local public,” Caskey rebuked Thompson. The rest of Caskey’s letter referred to the animosities between Greece and Turkey “over the Cyprus business,” and the progress that had been made concerning the reconstruction of the Stoa of Attalos: “The fluting of the eight columns is a fine sight.”
Morgan writing to Vanderpool from the other side of the Atlantic was more sympathetic about the theft. “It is a pity it has gone. I remember it well and believed it to be by one of the sculptors of the Parthenon frieze. Unfortunately this is the kind of thing that happens in the best of regulated museums, one of these things that no number of special guards or protective devices can entirely obviate… such as Princeton three years ago with three Rembrandt prints stolen during a commencement exhibition” (AdmRec 318/5 folder 8, September 13, 1955).
There is one last mention of the stolen head in the School’s records. On September 24, 1955, Vanderpool writing again to Thompson referred to some fake news about the missing head: “A clue which led to the Elsa Maxwell cruise proved false. Someone on the cruise had indeed bought a small head but it was not ours. It is a long and rather amusing story. Dick [Richard Hubbard] Howland knows it and would be glad to tell it if he sees you. I may write it someday.” Vanderpool also added that the Agora staff had “closed the courtyard to the general public: too bad, but really much better so” (Homer A. Thompson Papers, box 68, folder 4).
Maxwell (1883-1963) was a famous gossip columnist who was known for entertaining high-society guests at her parties and being friends with celebrities such as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Aristotle Onassis and Maria Callas. In late August 1955 Maxwell together with actress Olivia de Havilland organized a 15-day cruise in the Aegean for 113 members of European royalty and other high-society types, aboard the luxury yacht Achilleus, lent by the Greek shipping magnate, Stavros Niarchos. Although Maxwell’s cruise was not connected to the theft, cruise boats or merchant ships were the main vehicles for smuggling antiquities out of Greece before and after WW II, including the famous New York kouros in the Metropolitan Museum.
Eight Months Later and a Riddle
In search of more information about the stolen marble head, I continued to read correspondence between Caskey and Morgan, whose main concern was the progress of work on the Stoa of Attalos and plans for its inauguration in the late summer of 1956. There I came across a letter titled “Confidential” that Morgan sent to Caskey on May 15, 1956 soon after the May Meeting of the School’s Managing Committee (AdmRec 318/5 folder 9). While in New York, Morgan paid a visit to Christine Alexander (1893-1975), Curator of Greek and Roman Art at the Metropolitan Museum. Morgan was on a mission (sent by Caskey) to see Alexander about a delicate matter, the return to Greece of some object. “Not knowing exactly what approach to take I said ‘I am at your service if you need me’.” Morgan was surprised not so much by the position Alexander took but “from the indomitable conviction with which she spoke.” “Her opinion is that the Metropolitan bought the article in good faith, that the Metropolitan’s funds are charitable funds, invested for the benefit of the people of New York, that it would be improper to ask the citizens of New York to pay for the carelessness of a local museum.” For a moment I wondered if they were talking about the Agora marble head.
But then Alexander further pressed her arguments by pointing out “that the figure had not been published in anything that seems to have reached this country [America], that when the figure was stolen, though everyone knows that such material drifts to the New York market, no notification was received by the Metropolitan nor so far she [knew] by any other museum or private collector.” It was obvious that she was talking about something else, a figure, not a head, that had been stolen from a Greek museum.
Morgan tried to counteract her arguments by saying that if he were a Trustee of the Metropolitan faced with such a problem “I would immediately dig into my own pocket and the pockets of my fellow Trustees to reimburse the city for the cost of the figure and restore it to its original position.” He further added that “this was the time for American institutions to make such gestures and [he] would strongly advise that it be done with the greatest possible attendant publicity.
To which Alexander strongly disagreed believing that it would have had the opposite effect. “Well, we made the rascals give up the swag” Morgan quoted her saying. Morgan promised Caskey that he would continue to press the matter: “I will do everything I can to effect what seems to me a solution indicated morally if not legally.”
I found Caskey’s response in Morgan’s files. In a long letter written from Lerna on May 27, 1956, about a host of issues concerning the reconstruction of the Stoa of Attalos, Caskey finally came to the matter of dispute with the Metropolitan Museum.
I consider it of the greatest importance that the piece be returned. I had not supposed for a minute that there could be any doubt about that. It was published in an extensive study with three clear photographs… And if the funds of the people of New York were misspent by accident –for goodness sake that is no reason for being righteous.AdmRec 310/14, folder 10, Caskey to Morgan, May 27, 1956
The School’s good name was at risk: “… unless the bronze is returned promptly and gracefully, the good name of American archaeologists in Greece, and so of the School, is going to suffer a sharp blow. The French acted just right, asking no credit for returning the bronze that had been stolen (by others, of course) from Samos; and they received a lot of credit and good will from the Greek Ministry, and archaeologists. By contrast, we should look worse than Elgin,” concluded Caskey.
But what was the apple of discord? The only bronze figure that the Met acquired in 1955 was a small Hellenistic statuette of a rider wearing an elephant cap, and this seemed to have originated from Egypt. It does not seem that this was the figure that Greece wanted back and the Met refused to return. I have not been able to solve the riddle of the bronze figure. It also appears that the issue had not been resolved by April 1957, when Caskey, in another letter to Morgan, confessed that “just now I have had to report failure in my attempt to intercede in the matter of the missing work of art, about which you know, and this news of American irresponsibility [Caskey must be referring to the Met] made a really dismal impression on my Greek colleagues” (AdmRec 318/6, folder 2, April 18, 1957).
Although seemingly unrelated, the two cases point to the widening gap between art historians staffing American museums and field archaeologists, such as Caskey and Morgan, working in Greece in the 1950s. The former still operated under 19th century colonial terms, while the latter, especially Caskey, understood that following WW II there was a new world order in Greece to be taken into account and respected, despite his father having been Curator of Classical Art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Although even he occasionally found the situation frustrating, he observed that both leftist archaeologists such as Meliades and conservatives such as Marinatos were justified in their belief that the foreign schools continued to be unreasonably critical of the work of their Greek colleagues.
It is of course easy enough for the [foreign] schools to criticize the Greek service in turn and point out its weaknesses, as well as the good that the foreigners do for Greece. But ultimately the Greeks are right; this is their country and they must make their own decisions.Caskey confided to Morgan in late 1956 (AdmRec 318/6, folder 1, December 29, 1956)
As for stolen antiquities, such as the Hermes head from the Agora, the more publicity they receive the better it is. It is unclear how widely news of this loss circulated in 1955. Besides the short note in the London Times, I could not find a single reference in the newspapers.com database. The first time that a photo of the Hermes’ head appeared in a scholarly publication was in 1986 (Harrison 1986). Even if some of the large American museums were aware of its theft in the late 1950s, it is almost certain that, as curatorial staff retired or died (and with them institutional memory), the Hermes head moved from the top of the museums’ “hot list” to the bottom, when its photo was transferred to some institutional archive as an inactive record. It is laudable that the authors of the recent Hesperia article flagged its lost status several times in their essay. It remains out there somewhere, waiting to be repatriated to Greece.
Chatzi, G. (ed.) 2018. Γιάννης Μηλιάδης. Γράμματα στην Έλλη. Αλληολγραφία με την Έλλη Λαμπρίδη 1915-1937, Athens.
Harrison, E.B. 1986. “The Classical High-Relief Frieze from the Athenian Agora,” in Archaische und klassische griechische Plastik. Akten des internationalen Kolloquiums vom 22.–25. April 1985 in Athen 2: Klassische griechische Plastik, ed. H. Kyrieleis, Mainz, pp. 109–117.
Stewart, A., E. Driscoll, S. Estrin, N.J. Gleason, E. Lawrence, R. Levitan, S. Lloyd-Knauf, K. Turbeville, 2019. “Classical Sculpture from the Athenian Agora, Part 2: The Friezes of the Temple of Ares (Temple of Athena Pallenis),” Hesperia 88:4, pp. 625-705.
1946 marked the re-opening of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or School hereafter) in a country that had been devastated by war. In reading the official correspondence between the Greek Ministry of Education and the ASCSA, it becomes obvious that opening museums and the preservation of archaeological sites ranked highly on Greece’s list of priorities. With the launch of the Marshall Plan in 1947, Greece’s chances of success were also tightly connected with the development of tourism, and a large part of U.S. aid was streamlined in this direction.
“It is well known that travelers come to Greece chiefly for the purpose of seeing the ancient sites and visiting the museums of the country. In other words, the antiquities of Greece constitute a productive source of revenue capable of adding to the national treasury some 30 million dollars in the course of three years… No investment in the economy of Greece can match this for returns” wrote Oscar Broneer, Acting Director of the American School, on June 29th of 1948, in a petition of the School to the Industry Division of the Marshall plan for a $1,149,000 grant that would re-establish the Greek Archaeological Service.ASCSA AdmRec 804/6, folder 4
Carl W. Blegen, the excavator of many prehistoric sites in Greece who succeeded Broneer in the Directorship of the American School (1948-1949) and had served as Cultural Relations Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Athens in 1945-1946, also thought along the same lines. In an additional memorandum to the U.S. Ambassador in Athens, in August of 1948, Blegen underlined “the lamentable state of disrepair of the Greek museums,” which looked like empty shells (ASCSA AdmRec 804/6, folder 11). Blegen participated actively in meetings between the Economic Cooperation Administration (ECA) representatives and the Archaeological Service and helped with writing proposals. (The ECA was a U.S. government agency set up in 1948 to administer the Marshall Plan.) Since the American School could not receive direct funding from the Marshall plan, the only way to benefit from it was through collaboration with the Greek Government. The School hoped in this way to secure about $100,000 from the ECA through the Greek Government to supplement the cost of the construction of a museum that would store and display the growing number of finds from the Athenian Agora Excavations that had been accumulated since 1931. Before WW II, the School already had secured a grant of $150,000 from the Rockefeller Foundation to build a museum on the west side of the Agora.
Forced by the War to abandon their plans for an Agora Museum, the Americans resumed work at the Athenian Agora in 1947, conducting excavations at the proposed site, in order to begin construction. The 5th and 4th century B.C. houses and industrial workshops that they found were considered too important to be covered up, and a new site for the museum had to be found. After considering every possible location in the Athenian Agora for the museum, the Americans, following Homer Thompson’s suggestion, came to the conclusion that “another and in many ways preferable alternative would be to restore the Stoa of Attalos and install in it the museum, workrooms, and offices…” (ASCSA Annual Report 1947-1948, p. 29).
The draft of a program agreement between the ECA and the Greek Ministries of Coordination and Education included figures for the preservation of 34 monuments, and the reconstruction of the Stoa of Attalos was first on the list.Read the rest of this entry »
Posted by Dylan Rogers
Dylan Rogers holds a PhD from the University of Virginia, and he has been Assistant Director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens since 2015. This essay, the second of two parts, was inspired by recent research in the ASCSA Archives about the Summer Session program.
In my last post, I began an exploration of members of the Catholic clergy at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or School). My curiosity was piqued by the acerbic comments of Gertrude E. Smith who was not in favor of selecting Fr. Schoder to lead the School’s summer program in 1961. Was the School against admitting Catholic priests and nuns in its programs or was Smith’s dislike of Fr. Schoder personal and exceptional?
Part I examined the figure of Fr. Quinn, an accomplished scholar of Ancient and Modern Greek at the turn of the 20th century. Subsequent to Fr. Quinn ten more priests attended the School’s regular program. In addition, the SS has hosted at least 16 priests and nuns, from 1936 until 1973. The clergy came from a variety of orders, including parish priests, Benedictines (O.S.B.), a De La Salle brother (F.S.C.), a Sister of Mercy (R.S.M.), a Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (B.V.M.), a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur (S.N.D. de Namur), and two Sisters of St. Joseph (C.S.J.). But, by far, most of the priests (nearly 18) came from the Society of Jesus (S.J.), or the Jesuit order. And there were a number of interesting figures in this group, such as Fr. Thomas Bermingham, S.J. (1918-1998), a professor at Georgetown University, who had taught William Peter Blatty, the author of The Exorcist, Latin at Brooklyn Prep in the 1940s. Fr. Bermingham would later advise Blatty on the filming of The Exorcist, and eventually would play Tom, the president of Georgetown, in the film.
Communism In and Out of Fashion: The American School of Classical Studies at Athens and the Cold WarPosted: September 1, 2016
Posted by Jack L. Davis
Jack L. Davis, Carl W. Blegen Professor of Greek Archaeology at the University of Cincinnati and a former director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (2007-2012), here contributes an essay about attitudes of the ASCSA and its members toward Communists and Communism in the 20th century.
“Feeling they were witnessing the demise of capitalism, many writers moved left, some because their working class origins helped them identify with the dispossessed, others because they saw socialism or Communism as the only serious force for radical change, still others because it was the fashionable thing to do; they went where the action was.”
Morris Dickstein, Dancing in the Dark (2009), pp. 16-17.
In 1974, when I first arrived at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter), we youngsters were told that we should not express our political views in public. The ASCSA’s institutional mission might be hurt, were it perceived not to be neutral. In September 1974 that was certainly a reasonable position for the ASCSA to assume. Yet I was curious. In 1974, I was myself radicalized, and had definitely headed left. I could not condone U.S. policy in respect to the Junta, or the suppression of the Left in Greece. Could I say nothing? Had the ASCSA always maintained a position of strict neutrality? Or were its postures more convenient than sincere? Read the rest of this entry »
Posted by Lizabeth Ward Papageorgiou
Lizabeth Ward Papageorgiou here contributes to the Archivist’s Notebook an essay about Nancy Mitford’s visit to the Athenian Agora during the re-construction of the Stoa of Attalos in 1955. Unhappy with the building, Mitford, one of the famous Mitford sisters, wrote acidic comments about it in the press as well as to the Director of the Agora Excavations, Homer A. Thompson. Lizabeth (Liz), who studied Art History at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York University, found Mitford’s letters when she catalogued Thompson’s vast correspondence for the Archives of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens a few years ago. Her extensive catalogue of Homer Thompson’s papers is available at: http://www.ascsa.edu.gr/index.php/archives/thompson-finding-aid/
Over a decade ago, I archived the papers of Homer A. Thompson. Two of his letters are the subject of this article.
It [Athens] is probably the ugliest capital in Europe . . . [with] formless conglomerations of modern buildings overlooked by an immortal monument . . . . The traffic is noisier, wilder, and more evidently intent on homicide than that of Paris, and consists entirely of enormous pastel-colored American motor-cars.
Nancy Mitford, “Wicked Thoughts in Greece”, The Sunday Times, 24 July 1955.
Nancy Mitford (1904–1973), acclaimed author of comedies of English upper class manners (The Pursuit of Love), biographies (Madame de Pompadour), essays and reviews, was the eldest of six intelligent, beautiful and sometimes scandalous daughters of Lord and Lady Redesdale (Ben Macintyre described the sisters as Diana the Fascist, Jessica the Communist, Unity the Hitler-lover; Nancy the Novelist; Deborah the Duchess and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry connoisseur).1 In the summer of 1955, she traveled in Greece. She spent time with Patrick Leigh Fermor, who was living in Nikos Ghikas’s house on Hydra; went to Tatoi, the summer residence of King Paul; and visited friends in Spetses, Crete and the Peloponnese.2
When she was in Athens, she stayed at the Grand Bretagne and visited the ancient sites. One day she went to the Ancient Agora, but since the reconstruction of the Stoa of Attalos was not finished—it was covered with scaffolding and only the lower storey and colonnades had been reconstructed—Mitford must have needed permission to visit the site and one of the Agora staff to guide her. Homer A. Thompson, director of the Agora excavations from 1945 to 1967 and deeply involved with all aspects of the reconstruction of the Stoa, often mentioned visitors to the Agora in his letters to his wife, Dorothy Burr Thompson; but he made no mention of a visit by Nancy Mitford. Possibly Judith Perlzweig or C. W. J. Eliot, who bore the brunt of conducting visitors through the excavations and museum, served as her guide.3
Shortly after Mitford returned to her home in Paris, she wrote an article about her trip to Greece for The Sunday Times. Published on 24 July 1955, the title, “Wicked Thoughts in Greece”, gave readers a heads up that this was going to be another of her scathing attacks. Opening with the declaration that Athens is probably the ugliest capital in Europe, full of homicidal drivers and enormous pastel-colored American motor-cars, she continued to deplore the hideous newness of Athens, which from the air is a desert of khaki-coloured cement. But she did find an oasis in Plaka, where she delighted in the classical monuments, churches and old houses, until . . .
Alas! After ten minutes of happy wandering the dream is shattered and the dreadful wasteland of the Agora appears. Here the American School of Classical Studies seems to have torn down whole streets in order to search for a few pots. Here the Americans are building, in a ghastly graveyard marble, the Stoa, said to be ‘of Attalos’, but really of Mr. Homer A. Thompson. And here a gracious garden will be planted, complete, no doubt, with floral clock.
A few pages later, describing her visit to Knossos, she again attacked the reconstruction of the Stoa of Attalos:
. . . Knossos, a fraudulent reconstruction like the Stoa, English this time, alas, and built in an art nouveau style reminiscent of Paris metro stations. It is evident that Anglo-Saxons should be kept away from Mediterranean sites . . . . Knossos, however, matters less than the Stoa, because it is out in the country and does not spoil anything else. The Stoa in all its vileness hits the eye from the Acropolis and the Temple of Hephaestus. It is as though the French had allowed Frank Lloyd Wright to build his idea of a Petit Trianon at the bottom of the tapis vert at Versailles. Read the rest of this entry »