Editorial

By Chippidale, Christopher | Antiquity, December 1993 | Go to article overview

Editorial


Chippidale, Christopher, Antiquity


On the last day but one of his 1873 season, Heinrich Schliemann found at Hissarlik, the mound in west Turkey he had identified as the Troy of Homeric tales, the gold hoard he called 'Priam's Treasure'. This is the jewellery which was worn by his wife Sophia to turn her into Helen of Troy.(1) It went to Germany, and became the most celebrated of the treasures which disappeared from Berlin in the closing months of the Second World War, and ever since have been 'said to be' somewhere in the Soviet Union. In 1991, it was admitted that the German loot had gone to Russia, and this year Irina Antonova, director of the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, acknowledged the gold from Troy was in her museum, a secret that had not been secret to its staff.

The treasure was controversial as cultural property from the start. After Schliemann smuggled it out of Turkey, he paid 50,000 gold francs in Athens in an act of compensation which seems to have secured him its title. It was shown in London at the South Kensington museums 1877-80, on which occasion Schliemann valued it at the figure of |pounds~400, before coming to a permanent home in Berlin. This was not in the Pergamon, or elsewhere in the Museuminsel of central Berlin, but in the fine neo-Renaissance palazzo in red terracotta that is now called the Martin Gropius building.(2) Dr Wilfried Menghin, Director of the Museum fur Vorund Fruhgeschichte, Berlin, says its pre-war assets amounted to 'the best collection between the Atlantic and the Urals'. As the Allied armies closed on Berlin, these museum treasures were packed away, 3 caskets of first-class gold objects, 30 caskets of second-class silver objects, others of third-class objects. Hidden away too late, they were taken by the Soviets. The gold we now know was flown to Moscow, along with four other chests of artworks. The silver went to Leningrad as was, now St Petersburg, where about a third of it has now turned up. Because the sorting was by material and its visible value, the gold caskets included many other items beyond Priam's Treasure, like the Late Bronze Age treasure of 81 golden objects that was found at Eberswalde, Prussia, in 1913. Altogether the three caskets hold, or held, 1538 objects, of which 230 are from Priam's treasure.

Apocryphal stories circulate of crazed collectors whose private and lonely apartments are lined with Manets and Monets, stolen to order. This is the trouble with stuff you know is nicked: you can enjoy it yourself, but you cannot tell the world or let the experts study it. All these years the Pushkin has had Priam's Treasure is in its custody, and has not done anything with it. Now the possession is acknowledged, it wants to have first crack, Dr Antonova saying, 'Since fate has disposed that the gold should turn up in Russia, I would very much like to give an opportunity to our specialists to study it.' Yevgeny Sidorov, the Russian Cultural Minister, says it will go on exhibition in two years' time; he has held the gold in his own hands, 'It does not look very brilliant, but it gives out a warmth and energy that grabs your soul.' In due time, clearly, the stuff should go to its rightful owners, as the laws of cultural property provide. For items like the Eberswalde gold cup, the rightful owner is clearly Germany. (But what about any items excavated outside the lands of present-day Germany, or as far abroad as the Caucasus?) For Priam's Treasure, there are three interests beyond the Russians as the present proprietors. Ankara claims it because Troy is in Turkey, and any supposed old transfer out of Turkish jurisdiction may seem there to be improper or irrelevant. Berlin claims it because the Treasure came into the ownership of Schliemann, who presented it to the German people in 1881. Greece seems to have no basis for legal claim, but maintains the strongest patriotic interest in the Troy of Homer. Already President Boris Yeltsin has offered to send the Treasure to Athens for its first foreign exhibition, and Mr Sidorov says the resolution of the Treasure's future can be made 'only in a European framework', a phrase which may have many meanings. …

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