Leonard Stern's Cycladic art will be shown at the Met but owned by Greece

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Leonard Stern's Cycladic art will be shown at the Met but owned by Greece
Leonard Stern at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan in Oct. 10, 2022. An inventive collaboration allows a privately assembled collection of 161 ancient works to be viewed by the public. Jeenah Moon/The New York Times.

by Colin Moynihan

NEW YORK, NY.- One of the world’s most significant privately assembled collections of Cycladic antiquities will be going on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, part of a novel arrangement that includes an acknowledgment that it belongs to the Greek state.

The collection, which was put together over some 40 years by businessperson and philanthropist Leonard N. Stern, consists of 161 mostly marble figures and vessels created thousands of years ago in the Cyclades, a group of islands off the coast of Greece in the Aegean Sea.

As part of the arrangement, 15 of the most esteemed items accumulated by Stern will first be exhibited in early November at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens, Greece. These works and others from the collection will then occupy a prominent place in the Met’s Greek and Roman galleries for at least 10 years, beginning in early 2024.

The plan that is bringing Stern’s collection to the Met was designed to win Greece’s approval at a time when the country is aggressively pursuing antiquities that it believes should be returned to the country. Stern donated his collection to the Hellenic Ancient Culture Institute, a nonprofit organization in Delaware that will safeguard the antiquities and make them available for display. The institute is governed by a board whose chair and a majority of members are appointed by the Cycladic museum, a private institution founded in 1986 to house the collection of Nikolaos and Aikaterini (Dolly) Goulandris and which is supervised by the Greek culture ministry.

“This agreement builds on decades of a fruitful partnership between the Greek government and the Met,” the museum’s director, Max Hollein, said in a statement. “And we are delighted to be able to play a role in an arrangement that will thrill and educate visitors and scholars now and for generations to come.”

By Monday, almost all of those works — including multiple examples of one of the more familiar Cycladic forms: a mouthless and eyeless marble figure depicted standing with folded arms — had been transported to the Met, where most were stored in wooden crates.

Cycladic works are highly prized and considered by some experts to represent the genesis of Western art. Their smooth, uncomplicated contours inspired artists including Constantin Brancusi, Amedeo Modigliani and Picasso, who called them “magical objects.”

Stern, the chair and CEO of the privately owned Hartz Mountain Industries, based in New York, said that he became entranced by Cycladic art as a youth when he saw examples at the Met, admiring what he called “the power, the simplicity” of the “magnificent stone carvings.” He began his collection in 1981, gradually assembling a group of artifacts that were kept at his town house on Fifth Avenue, displayed in a room that was used as a library office.

The collection includes items from the late Neolithic period to the end of the early Bronze Age that range in size from diminutive figurines to an over 4-foot-long reclining female figure, referred to by the Met as “among the great works of Cycladic art.”

About three years ago, Stern said, he approached Hollein with the idea of exhibiting at the Met the works he had collected. Several parties, including the Greek government, eventually agreed upon an arrangement meant to allow the items to be displayed publicly while avoiding potential disputes over who owns or controls them.

Greek law asserts government ownership over “movable antiquities” dating up to 1453. It allows for the possession of those items by individuals with the permission of the minister of culture but prohibits the acquisition of cultural objects suspected of deriving from theft, illegal excavation or other illegal acts.

Standards of collecting have changed over the past few decades, with individuals and museums paying greater attention to when and how antiquities have been removed from their countries of origin.

At the same time, law enforcement agencies in the United States and elsewhere have investigated the looting and trafficking of cultural property. And countries including Italy, Egypt and Cambodia have demanded the return of artifacts that had been displayed in the world’s leading museums, including the Met.

In a speech in September, the Greek culture minister, Lina Mendoni, said the ministry had no evidence that items in the Stern collection had been exported unlawfully.

Still, Stern said, he recognized that it would be difficult to donate his collection outright to the Met, adding, “None of the major museums want to affront the honor of countries by accepting their patrimony unless they have the blessing of these countries.”

A key step in the process of bringing Stern’s collection to the Met took place last month when the Greek parliament ratified an agreement among the Greek culture ministry, the Cycladic museum, the Met and the Hellenic Ancient Culture Institute in Delaware.

That agreement, reviewed by The New York Times, includes a line saying that all four parties agree that “Greek Patrimony Law provides that the Greek State is the sole owner of the Collection,” while allowing for the possession of the collection by the Hellenic Ancient Culture Institute.

The complete collection will be on view exclusively at the Met for 10 years; over the next 15 years, parts of it will gradually travel to Greece for display at the Cycladic museum and other museums. Greek museums, meanwhile, will loan Cycladic works to the Met.

“We are all very proud to have participated in this effort of creating new ways of collaboration between museums” and to play a role in the “consensual return of antiquities,” the Cycladic museum’s president and CEO, Kassandra Marinopoulou, wrote in an email.

In 2049, the Greek state may agree to loan the collection to the Met again for another period of up to 25 years. If no such agreement is reached, the part of the collection that is still at the Met will revert to the Hellenic Ancient Culture Institute and be sent to Greece for display there.

As part of the arrangement to display the collection, Stern is endowing an archive room in the Greek and Roman Department’s Onassis Library for Hellenic and Roman Art, and a position to facilitate the care of the archives and scholarly visits, both to be named after him.

Stern said that he believes that the agreement provides a blueprint for other collectors to arrange the display of ancient artworks in American museums while avoiding acrimony with foreign governments.

He was gratified, he added, that the agreement would keep intact a group of artifacts that he had assembled over decades.

“It was important for me to keep the collection together,” he said. “Because I knew it could never be duplicated.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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