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Robbers steal Olympic artifacts from Greek museum; minister quits

February 17, 2012 |  4:15 am

Greece museum
This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.

REPORTING FROM ATHENS -- Armed robbers have stolen scores of ancient artifacts from a museum in Ancient Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympics, sparking the resignation of Greece's culture minister and adding to concerns over the state's ability to guard the country's national treasures.

Authorities in Athens and Olympia said Friday that at least two thieves tied up the museum's sole night guard before fleeing with dozens of priceless artifacts, including bronze, clay and gold items used by ancient athletes during the Games.

"They gagged and tied up the female guard just as the shift was about to change at 7 a.m., " police spokesman Athanassios Kokkalakis said in a telephone interview. "There were two [intruders] dressed in military fatigues and they were armed."

Television and radio networks interrupted scheduled programs to broadcast details of what police called a “well-calculated” hit. The news left many Greeks in a state of shock.

Special investigators were en route to the ancient town in the western Peloponnese where the small white museum, perched in sprawling wooded grounds, was blocked off by local police who were scouring the grounds for evidence.

The theft, which comes just weeks after burglars snatched from the National Gallery in Athens an oil painting by Pablo Picasso and one by Piet Mondrian, triggered the resignation of Culture Minister Pavlos Geroulanos.

It remained unclear, however, whether Prime Minister Lucas Papademos accepted Geroulanos' offer to step down. Senior culture ministry officials said Geroulanos was en route to Ancient Olympia.

Greece's economic crisis has left the 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.

About 1,900 government-paid security guards protect more than 15,000 museums, monuments and archaeological sites across the country. Of these, 1,350 are full-time staff; the rest are either contract employees hired during the peak tourist season or civil servants relocated from state corporations that the government has begun shutting down in a bid to slash public spending.

[For the record, 6:49 a.m. Feb. 17: An earlier version of this post misspelled the last name of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian as Modrian.]


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-- Anthee Carassava

Photo: Police investigators at Greece's National Gallery in Athens on Jan. 9, after thieves broke in and stole paintings by Picasso and Mondrian. Credit: Orestis Panagiotou / EPA