The Transatlantic Voyage of a Greek Maiden

On March 31, 1947, Gisela Richter, Curator of Greek and Roman Art at the Metropolitan Museum of New York, sent a confidential letter to Carl W. Blegen, Professor of Classics at the University of Cincinnati and a distinguished archaeologist. Richter approached Blegen not only because they were friends but because, by having lived in Greece for many years, Blegen had formed strong connections with the local community at all levels. In addition, during World War II, Blegen had offered his services to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and, upon his return to Greece, he had served as Cultural Attaché at the U.S. Embassy (1945-1946). Richter was writing Blegen about five pieces of Greek sculpture on loan to the Metropolitan Museum, including Kore 675 from the Acropolis. Richter refers to her as the “Maiden”.

The Maiden (Kore 675) from the Athenian Acropolis depicted on a Greek stamp of 1974.

“As I think I told you, we are naturally anxious to return to the Greeks what they have kindly lent us but very much hope that some arrangement can be made by which we may retain that one Maiden. The other pieces we are not even going to ask for, as there are obvious reasons in each case why the Greeks would not want to part with them, and asking for them would only weaken our case for the Maiden. The latter is one of many, and would hardly be missed in Athens, whereas here she would act as an ambassadress of goodwill, etc., etc.”

Richter sought Blegen’s advice about how to proceed with the request. “The loan to Greece ought to create goodwill for America, but naturally we don’t want to seem to cash in on it.” Richter was referring to President Truman’s announcement of March 1947, known as the Truman Doctrine, whereby the U.S. government granted $300 million in military and economic aid to Greece and $100 million to Turkey. “Would it be better to ask for the piece as a gift and perhaps compensate for it in some other way, or would a direct purchase be better? You who have been in Greece recently and know Greek politics will be able to advise us better than anyone else,” concluded Richter.

Blegen’s response exists only as a draft in his personal papers at the Archives of the American School of Classical Studies (ASCSA or School hereafter). The mention of [Spyros] Skouras’s name in his response (not mentioned in Richter’s letter) suggests that Richter might have followed up with a second letter or a telegram or a note to Blegen’s wife, Elizabeth. To Richter’s disappointment, Blegen could not think “of any altogether satisfactory way of approach to recommend” (ASCSA Archives, Carl W. Blegen Papers, Box 13, folder 1, April 6, 1947). However, he did not reject the idea of having Spyros Skouras, the Greek-American movie mogul, mediate with the Greek authorities “since he has much influence and could apply some pressure. If he could propose it in the right quarters as an idea of his own, not inspired by you, there might be some hope that he could persuade them to make the offer as a spontaneous gesture of friendship.” Blegen thought of another alternative as well: “to ask Bert [Hodge] Hill to try his powers of persuasion.” Hill, Director of the American School from 1906 until 1926, was still considered to be social capital by many at the School. A gifted individual with access to the upper echelons of a small Athenian society, including the royal family, Hill “had his way with men” and could influence politicians. Blegen thought that it would have to be a political decision since the Archaeological Service would likely oppose to it.

There is no other correspondence between Blegen and Richter on this matter. We know that the Acropolis Maiden and the other pieces of sculpture were returned to Greece, so one assumes that either Richter did not press the issue further or that the mediators were unsuccessful. However, it is interesting to read an announcement in the Greek newspaper ΕΛΕΥΘΕΡΙΑ on August 11, 1948, titled “The Greek State will Sell Certain Antiquities. Superfluous in Museums,” which implies that the Ministry of Education might have considered briefly the idea of selling duplicate antiquities, in order to finance the reopening of Greek museums and the beautification of those archaeological sites that had suffered much during the War.

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