Ancient Athenian Vases Decorating Graves Returned to Greece

Ancient Athenian gravestones
One of the vases is decorated with a family scene, showing a seated elderly man being bid farewell by his son — wearing the armor of an ancient Athenian soldier — and wife. Credit: Ministry of Culture

Two plundered marble vases that marked ancient Athenian graves more than 2,000 years ago, including one with an emotional family scene, have been returned to Greece from Switzerland.

Greece’s Culture Ministry said in a statement Tuesday that the two white marble works, which were decorated with relief sculptures, were brought back following a long legal battle.

Both are broken, with the necks and parts of the bases missing. One measures 60 centimeters (23 inches) in height, while the other is 54 centimeters (21 inches).

They date to the 4th century BC and would have stood on family graves somewhere near Athens, but because they were clandestinely dug up and illegally exported it’s unlikely the precise spot will be found.

The one is decorated with a family scene, showing a seated elderly man being bid farewell by his son — wearing the armor of an ancient Athenian soldier — and wife. The other has plant motifs.

Ancient Athenian Vases
The second gravestone with plant motifs. Credit: Ministry of Culture

Legal battle for the return of ancient Athenian vases

Greek Culture Minister Lina Mendoni said the return of plundered antiquities from abroad is a “top political priority” for the ministry, which has secured several high-profile repatriations in recent years.

“The repatriation of Greek antiquities, which have been illegally exported abroad, is a matter of national importance and a high political priority for the Ministry of Culture,” Mendoni said.

“International cooperation for the return of illegally exported cultural goods through bilateral and multilateral agreements is our main pursuit. Today, with the repatriation of the two classical burial marble vessels, a long-standing claim of ours is completed.”

The ministry statement said the two vases were first located in 2002 in Basel, Switzerland, during a raid by Italian and Swiss authorities on a warehouse used by an Italian antiquities dealer. But in 2014 they were returned to the dealer after an Italian court ruled they were not of Italian origin.

In 2017, Greek authorities noticed that the works were offered for sale by a Swiss dealer, and successfully sought their seizure by Switzerland. The ministry said it emerged that Swiss authorities had sold them to the second dealer to cover legal costs incurred by the Italian dealer.

After more than six years of legal efforts, they were delivered to Greek officials on June 26 following out-of-court negotiations, the ministry said.

They will be exhibited at a museum with finds from the Kerameikos, the main cemetery of ancient Athens.

Related: Has the Location of Plato’s Grave Been Found in Athens?

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