Cyprus Mail

Silence over looted treasure

Sarcophagus from the 5th century BC. Taken from Amathus

By Jean Christou

FOR A country that never stops hammering home the ‘destruction of the island’s cultural heritage’, Cyprus has remained strangely silent over Greece’s outrage that a piece of the Elgin Marbles has been loaned to Russia by the British Museum.

Even Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu publicly supported the return of the marbles, taken by British diplomat Lord Elgin from the Parthenon 200 years ago. “The return of works of a nation’s cultural heritage is very important,” he said.

Given the looting of artefacts in the north since 1974, Davutoglu’s comment is ironic to say the least. Yet, so too is Cyprus’ silence. For while Greek Cypriot politicians shout the loudest when it comes to looting by the Turks, the thefts of recent years pale into insignificance compared to the 1860s and 70s when probably the greatest robbery of antiquities in the island’s history took place.

Cyprus’ own ‘Elgin Marbles’ – as they were once described by former Antiquities Director Pavlos Flourentzos – consisted of over 30,000 artefacts dating from 2500BC to 300AD, which were looted from all over the island by just one man during ten years starting after 1865 and ending before the British took over in 1878.

Luigi Palma di Cesnola
Luigi Palma di Cesnola

He was American Consul Luigi Palma di Cesnola, an Italian who married an American woman and was given the post in Cyprus during the time of Ottoman rule. Another 5,000 items shipped out to the US were lost at sea and never recovered.

The ‘Cesnola Collection’ ultimately ended up at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art – sold to them by Cesnola who had tried to flog them elsewhere first.

The museum might never have come into existence without him and his ill-gotten gains, and though only 600 items are actually on display, the collection formed the backbone of the Met when it opened in 1880. Cesnola was made director for life.

In all these years, despite the constant bleating that the island’s cultural heritage belongs here, and in sharp contrast to Greece, successive Cypriot governments have declined to rock the boat when it comes to the Cesnola Collection. Little wonder then on the muted response to the Elgin Marbles.

Although no doubt there is tacit support for their return to the Parthenon, the Cyprus government clearly can’t make a fuss about the Elgin Marbles without being called to answer why Cyprus doesn’t fight for some of its stolen unique and priceless artefacts.

There are two prevailing perspectives. One is that the Cesnola collection, like the Elgin Marbles, were exported with the consent of the Ottomans and that Cyprus does not have a legal case for their return. The second is that having the collection at such a prestigious location as the Met puts Cyprus’ civilisation on the map.

This was the view of the late President Glafcos Clerides who was the last to be grilled about it 14 years ago when he went to inaugurate an exhibition of Cypriot artefacts in New York.

He drew further criticism when he said Cyprus had enough artefacts of its own to display, which contradicted his speech where he had referred to the post-1974 looting saying the government was determined “to pursue the return of each and every object of our heritage removed illegally from this area of Cyprus”.

Opposition politicians accused him of condoning the fact that the major New York exhibition was founded on ‘colonialist theft’. The biggest criticism came from then AKEL leader and future president Demetris Christofias.

“I don’t think that the tourists to the Louvre or some place in the US or anywhere else immediately think about the Cyprus problem when they see a statue,” he said, as if that was the point.

Limestone head of a bearded man, ealry 6th century BC. Said to be from Golgoi
Limestone head of a bearded man, ealry 6th century BC. Said to be from Golgoi

Fourteen years later, nothing has changed and although Cyprus would love to see the Cesnola Collection returned, no one sees it as a possibility in the foreseeable future, nor is there going to be a fight for that to happen… unless the Clooneys take up the cause.

Former director of the Antiquities Department, veteran archaeologist, author and scholar Vassos Karageorghis told the Sunday Mail that 100 museums around the world possessed Cypriot artefacts, some of which were also very important pieces. But, he said there was no international legislation obliging foreign museums to repatriate pieces to their country of origin.

“This has been the fight for the Elgin Marbles for years,” he said. “We have all expressed our wish that one day UNESCO or other international organisations will urge museums to collaborate for the repatriation of objects of national significance but there is no actual legislation.”

He said Cyprus had on numerous occasions expressed the wish for the return of the Cesnola Collection, but he said by the laws of the time, they were legally exported and there is no way at present to fight that.

Current antiquities chief Despo Pilides echoed Flourentzos’ view that the Cesnola Collection and the Elgin Marbles were comparable, other than the fact the Parthenon was still standing and the marbles were an essential element of the structure while the Cesnola Collection was a mish mash of artefacts from all over the island.

“In a way they can still be compared,” she said. “What is similar is the fact they were both exported under the same laws… laws in inverted commas… meaning it was under a law being implemented by a country occupying another country and giving a licence to export for items belonging to the occupied country. Both are similar in that way and the philosophy behind it [their return] is also the same.”

Limestone statue, first century BC. Said to be from Golgoi
Limestone statue, first century BC. Said to be from Golgoi

Pilides said the number of items taken in general from Cyprus over the centuries was inestimable. “We can’t ask for them back because they were legally exported by the law of the time so legally we don’t have a good case,” she added.

As for any notion of goodwill to repatriate on the part of the museums holding such pieces, she said: “Museums don’t have [that kind of] goodwill but maybe attitudes will change.”

Although the Cyprus Museum and a hundred others around the world are teeming with Cypriot antiquities, Pilides said the Cesnola Collection had some very unique pieces some of which might not have a duplicate anywhere. “They chose the best objects to sell to museums,” she said of people like Cesnola.

Cyprus does receive some pieces from the collection on loan or exchange and it is linked to the collection digitally so that Cypriot scholars can study the items.

If Cyprus were to launch a fight for the collection, Pilides said the authorities would have to be aware of how realistic the prospects of winning would be and not just jump in head first into a gigantic legal battle with the Metropolitan Museum.

“There is a philosophy that objects should belong to their country and one day this will be accepted,” she added.

In the private world of Cypriot historical research, Rita Severis, Executive Director of the Centre of Visual Arts and Research said she did not see a need to pursue the repatriation of the Cesnola Collection in particular. Severis said the Venetians had also taken “masses of stuff” from Cyprus earlier on and Cyprus still had plenty of important items of its own, she said.

Limestone statue end of early 6th century BC
Limestone statue end of early 6th century BC

Also, Severis said the Cesnola Collection was controversial in itself because it was not altogether “clean” in the professional sense. Cesnola was not an archaeologist but someone who was buying items from ordinary people and even sticking different pieces of items together, which means the cataloguing may not be historically accurate. “There were no laws on this until the British came,” she said. “It [the collection] is well exhibited where it is”.

President of the Metropolitan Museum John Taylor Johnston believed the same 100 years ago, though for a very different reason. He wrote then: “By his researches he [Cesnola] rescued these treasures from time and an unappreciative race.”


According to the Met’s website the Cesnola Collection is by far the most important and comprehensive collection of Cypriot material in the Western Hemisphere. The objects illustrate the unique character of Cypriot art and highlight the exotic blend of Greek, Near Eastern, and Egyptian influences in Cyprus throughout antiquity.

It is the richest and most varied representation, outside Cyprus, of Cypriot antiquities, it says. The works rank among the finest examples of Cypriot art from the prehistoric, Geometric, Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic, and Roman periods. Among the objects are monumental sculpture; weapons, tools, and domestic utensils; vases, lamps, and ritual paraphernalia; dedicatory figurines; engraved sealstones and jewellery; and luxury objects. They represent every major medium worked in antiquity – stone, copper-based metal, clay, faience, glass, gold and silver, ivory, and semiprecious stones. “The pieces testify to the quintessentially Cypriot amalgam of indigenous traditions and elements assimilated from the ancient Assyrians, Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans who, one after the other, controlled the island.” It said special emphasis is placed on the Metropolitan Museum’s collection of Cypriot limestone sculpture, which includes impressive sarcophagi from Golgoi and Amathus and is the finest in the world.


According to Stuart Swiny, who wrote a foreword on behalf of the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute in the 1991 reprint of Cesnola’s 1878 book Cyprus: Its Ancient Cities. Tombs and Temples, Luigi Palma di Cesnola, soldier and diplomat turned antiquarian, was prone to a little hyperbole.

“Seeing that Cesnola’s life reads like a novel, there is perhaps little wonder that this, his major publication, should adopt the same tone,” Swiny wrote.

“Indeed, it is a tantalizing web of fact, fiction and hyperbole that researchers have laboured to disentangle for well over a century.”

He said the line between reality and imagination was so thin and tortuous that many of Cesnola’s statements should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Swiny added that late 19th Century antiquarian enthusiasm should be set in its social and scholarly context and not judged by the more rigorous moral standards of today. Archaeology was not yet a science and Cesnola’s pursuits had “always been unabashedly motivated by gain”. “He wished to sell to the highest bidder,” Swiny wrote.

In the first chapter of his book, Cesnola describes his arrival on the island on Christmas Day 1865 with his wife and baby.

“Larnaca looked the very picture of desolation,” he wrote. “I admit my first thought was to stay on board [the ship] and not to land on such a forlorn looking island.” If he had, what would have become of those thousands of antiquities? Would any other amateur archaeologist have gone after the island’s treasures as relentlessly as Cesnola, or would many of those 35,000 artefacts have remained buried and when unearthed, come under the more protective British laws a mere ten years later?

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