There are not many people who would admit to being in possession of unprovenanced antiquities especially if it concerns Greek antiquities, among other artifacts.
John S. Gomperts is one exception to that rule, however, having returned over nineteen pieces he had inherited from his grandmother. The American had no clue, however, until he saw an article in The Guardian.
According to The Guardian, Gomperts had been reading the newspaper when he came across an article on stolen artifacts. When finished, he realized that he had in his possession artifacts with no provenance. There were nineteen pieces in total—twelve belonging to Greece, four to Italy, one to Pakistan, and two to Cyprus.
His grandmother, Gisela Schneider Hermann, was of German-Dutch origin. In 1992, she died at the age of ninety-eight. Gomperts knew that she had participated actively in excavations in Italy and Greece in the 1950s and 1960s. She had even published scientific articles on it.
However, as Gomperts stated, “I have no idea how she actually acquired these objects. She was a prim and proper person. But there were different norms of the day. These objects were her obsession, her entire existence.”
Though some of the artifacts had receipts, he was warned by Greek archaeologist Christos Tsirogiannis that the Greek merchants mentioned in the receipts may have participated in the illegal trade of other ancient relics in that era.
Items inherited to him by his grandmother -through hs mother- included fourth-century ceramic tables by painters from Southern Italy with figures of acrobatics. There was also a vase from the fourth century that ancient Greeks used in their wedding ceremonies.
Gomperts’ grandmother had also owned a fragment of carved stone portraying followers of Buddha from the third or fourth century. Also amongst the hoard were two pots from Cyprus dating back to the seventh and eighth centuries.
The total value of the items were around ninety thousand euros, which equates to around $93,250. Gomperts also had no idea of their worth. Once he knew, he made the ethical decision to return them.
An ethical decision
Yet, making ethical decisions is clearly part of the Washington resident’s nature, having headed numerous charitable organizations.
Gomperts, for instance, is an advisor to governmental organizations, an advocate for children and youths as part of a national service, the former CEO of America’s Promise Alliance, and the former director of Americorps.
In those various roles, Gomperts has met many important figures in U.S. politics. That includes such politicians as Lester Strong, Senator Corey Booker, Colin Powell, President Bush, and President Barack Obama.
It was thus easy for him to come to the right conclusion and start making plans on how to return the items.
Greek antiquities returned
Gomperts explained to The Guardian his reasons for returning the Greek antiquities, saying “It seemed like the right thing to do…I read stories on repatriation and I thought: we have these pieces that are 2,500 years old from other countries; we should explore whether we can give them back.”
Nonetheless, it is not easy to return ancient artifacts even if one is doing so for the right intentions. That is something Gomperts himself learned while trying to figure out who to talk to first. He finally decided to contact Tsirogiannis, the head of the investigation for the Illicit Antiquities Trade at the Ionian University in Corfu.
Tsirogiannis, a forensic archeologist, was well-known for being an astute ‘detective’ in his field, having identified over 1,600 items taken from private collections, museums, and action houses. He also heroically helped get them back to their rightful owners.
Furthermore, he took an active part in the legal case between auction house Sotheby’s and Greece on an ancient Greek bronze figurine of a horse that Sotheby’s lost.
The antiquities trade
According to the archeological magazine The Watchman, upon learning of the existence of the artifacts, Tsirogiannis immediately advised Gomperts to return them. At the same time, he also gave him some tips about the value of the items he owned.
Evidently, what Tsirogiannis told him was “if you follow my advice, you will have no problems and you will also become a role model for others.”
The question was how best to do it, which Tsirogiannis also answered. As The Watchman reported, the American philanthropist and altruist was told: “You pack them in a box for each country and go to their embassies. Please use my name—this will protect you. The most honest method is the direct method.”
Fortunately, there was no reason for Gomperts to be fearful, as each country was grateful for the items returned.