Greece gets antiquities back from U.S. collector

ATHENS Wed Sep 3, 2008 10:10am EDT

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ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece celebrated on Wednesday the return of two rare smuggled antiquities from a prominent U.S. collector and expressed hope other ancient Greek treasures housed overseas would one day be sent home.

A fourth century B.C. bronze vase and the upper part of a marble tombstone were returned by U.S. collector Shelby White in August, a year after the Culture Ministry started lobbying to get them back on evidence they had been smuggled out of Greece.

The lower part of the broken tombstone, depicting a young man and a warrior, was found in Greece during a 1960s excavation. The fragments, which archaeologists feared would never be reunited, can now be exhibited for the first time as a whole.

"Fortunately, the archaeologists' prediction was wrong. I feel privileged as the culture minister to share the scientists' joy," Culture Minister Michalis Liapis told reporters at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. "I'm sure we will see such events more often in the future."

In the past two years, the Greek ministry has launched a hunt for thousands of ancient artifacts smuggled out of the country. Many museums around the world have started returning smuggled objects to their countries of origin.

In 2007, the J. Paul Getty Museum in California agreed to return 40 items to Italy after Rome launched a court case alleging that they had been smuggled out of the country. The museum has returned several such items to Greece.

"Fighting antiquities smuggling is the result of governments' cooperation internationally," Liapis said. "We sign agreements, we unite our powers in the war against this criminal activity."

Greece has waged a long-running battle for the return of the Parthenon Marbles, removed from the Athens Acropolis 200 years ago by British diplomat Lord Elgin and currently housed in the British Museum in London.

The museum refuses to return them to Greece on the ground that its statutes do not allow it to do so.

"This event certainly gives us hopes for the return of the Parthenon marbles," Liapis told Reuters.

(Reporting by Renee Maltezou; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Mark Trevelyan)

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