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Published on 11 February 2012
A $6.5-million theft at Greece's National Gallery exposes how vulnerable the country's national treasures are during its financial crisis
Under a frosty Greek moon on a still Sunday night last month, a team of black-clad cat burglars staged a heist unrivaled in this ancient city.
The thieves, among them a virtuoso lock picker, weaved their way across the six lanes of Athens' busiest boulevard and then melted into a background of darkness for hours. Just before dawn, they scaled a wall to a balcony and broke intoGreece's National Gallery, a big, boxy building in the city's most-protected district.
Within seven minutes, after jimmying a bolted balcony door and clipping the cables of the main security system, they snatched two oil paintings by modern masters Pablo Picasso and Piet Mondrian, plus a tiny sketch by 16th century Italian artist Guglielmo Caccia.
The $6.5-million theft, the first in the gallery's 112 years of operation, grabbed international headlines and became instant crime folklore. But the notoriety focused less on the skill of the thieves and more on what critics consider malfeasance by the state in guarding Greece's national treasures.
"There was just one guard minding the entire gallery that night," huffed Dimos Kouzilos, the head of a special police unit investigating art and antiquities smuggling, as he took a deep drag on his cigarette. "I understand the need for cutbacks, but please.... My house is better padlocked and protected."
Culture Ministry and gallery officials launched an administrative investigation of the theft as police and intelligence agencies across the country and Europe joined in an effort to retrieve the paintings. Investigators contacted last month said suspicion is growing that it was an inside job involving gallery staff in a theft-for-hire plotted by an rich art lover.
But the case is much more than a high-profile mystery in the cradle of Western civilization. With borders blurred and customs inspections disappearing across Europe, art and antiquities trafficking has become increasingly easy. And growing affluence worldwide has increased the demand for art.
Greek police investigators collect evidence outside the National Gallery of Athens in January after burglars broke in and stole paintings. (Orestis Panagiotou, European Pressphoto Agency / January 4, 2012)
Experts say these trends, combined with Greece's dizzying economic downturn and social crises, have made the tiny, culture-rich country a softer target for tomb raiders, looters and nefarious art dealers.
"We're becoming more vulnerable," said a senior intelligence official, requesting anonymity because of his involvement in the investigation of the gallery heist.
Greece's economic crisis has left the Culture Ministry desperately short of cash, resulting in a near-shutdown of scores of museums, dwindling archaeological work in various parts of the country and, in some cases, severe cutbacks in security.
At the National Gallery, the curator acknowledged that although the safety of its collection "is not in peril," budget cuts have scaled back security personnel by about 50% since 2010, leaving the country's biggest storehouse of fine art with just 19 of the 37 guards it employed before the fiscal crisis.
"If robbers are breaking in here," said Vassiliki Paraschi, a bystander peering up at the gallery's assaulted balcony door, "then I can't imagine what is happening to small museums in remote locations."
Greece has never been a generous investor in culture. Even in the 1990s heyday of spendthrift policies, Athens allocated just 0.7% of the national budget for the promotion and preservation of Greece's cultural inheritance.
Now nearly bankrupt, the state has halved that figure to 0.35%, allotting 42% of that — about $173 million — to the operation and security of museums, monuments, monasteries and archaeological sites, according to the 2012 budget.
Government officials are emphatic, however, that the financial crisis is not taking a toll on the safety of Greece's fine art and antiquities.
"We made drastic cuts in 2010. We hired no one, not even a single archaeologist," said Lina Mendoni, secretary general of the Culture Ministry. "We have now come back, hiring just security personnel to man museums and archaeological sites. Well, doesn't that prove our genuine conviction to safeguarding our cultural heritage?"
About 1,900 government-paid guards protect more than 15,000 museums, monuments and archaeological sites across the country. Of these, 1,350 are full-time staff members; the rest are either contract employees hired during the peak tourist season or civil servants relocated from state corporations that the government shut down last year in a bid to slash public spending.
"What am I supposed to do with a 63-year-old mechanic or bus driver who is clueless about antiquity and is just interested in clocking time until retirement?" asked Giorgos Dimakakos, the head guard at the Acropolis, Greece's landmark monument.
In recent months, Culture Ministry guards have heightened demands for permanent employment and an exemption from further austerity cuts, saying the government's Band-Aid solutions to personnel shortages pose grave security and liability risks.
With poverty levels rising and more than 100,000 businesses shuttered or close to bankruptcy, art and antiquities thefts are up by at least 30% in the last year, said Kouzilos of the special police unit. It's hardly a surprise, then, to see a dramatic increase in small-time hoods and first-time crooks trying to join the ranks of seasoned art thieves.
"About 95% of the names coming in from our informants are newcomers," Kouzilos said. "Not a single one of the arrested had a euro to show for [their troubles]. All were in financial ruins."
In one of the most high-profile cases last year, police arrested a trio of smugglers trying to sell artifacts that included 6th century BC helmets, gold funerary masks and part of an iron sword linked to the dynasty of Alexander the Great. Only one of the gang members had a record in antiquities smuggling; the others were bouncers newly fired from a nightclub in northern Greece.
As the recession deepens, police expect art and antiquities crime to rise, but there is a silver lining.
"The more amateurs join in, the easier it is to nab them," Kouzilos said.
Carassava is a special correspondent.