The largest exhibition of ancient Greek ceramics to ever go on public display in Israel — 84 exquisite items dating as far back as the second millennium BCE — opened Wednesday at Jerusalem’s Bible Lands Museum.
A dazzling kaleidoscope of red, black and white pottery comprising 84 pieces spanning 1,500 years of antiquity — from the lost Minoan civilization to the peak of Athenian magnificence — make up the centerpieces of the “Gods, Heroes and Mortals in Ancient Greece.”
But the items in the show, which kicks off the museum’s 25th anniversary celebrations, are part of a collection with pieces suspected of having being plundered. While the museum says they were acquired before a 1972 convention prohibiting such sales, making them legal, others have raised doubts.
The artifacts comprise roughly half of the ancient Greek ceramics collection belonging to the institution’s founder, Elie Borowski, who died in 2003. Several items went on display several years ago at the museum’s 2001 exhibit “Glories of Ancient Greece.”
The artifacts belong to the Borowski Foundation, but director Amanda Weiss said the museum plans to keep the exhibit open for the “long term,” at least the next two years.
The ceramic wares constitute an exceptional assemblage of classical artwork, and the figures drawn on the clay with a brilliant chemical process offer visitors a broad look into the day-to-day life, culture and mythology of the ancient Greeks.
Familiar mortals such as Achilles and Memnon and deities such as Zeus, Dionysus and Nike stand out in black or red figures, the result of a technique involving firing vessels multiple times in oxygen-rich or poor environments.
“What’s beautiful about the ceramics is that they show us life during the period,” Silvia Rozenberg, classical art expert and guest curator for the exhibit, said. The objects on display depict students and teachers, a wedding, sports, war, religious worship and a funeral. But what sets Greek ceramics apart is their narrative element. “They tell a story.”
In the case of three massive urns by the entrance, scenes from the Trojan War are retold in terracotta. Rozenberg explained that much of the lore surrounding the Trojan War didn’t survive, but artists in antiquity illustrated non-anthologica
One amphora depicts the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, the parents of Achilles, hero of the Iliad; the next shows Achilles dueling with Memnon, another scene from outside the canon; the last shows the death of Achilles, his body borne by Ajax.
The illustrations baked into the clay also served as “warning signs” indicating cultural norms, “what’s permitted and what’s forbidden, what you need to do, particularly in the world of women.”
A vitrine with vessels bearing women shows what the ancient Greeks expected of them: at home, caring for children and spinning wool. But one rare kylix shows a lady in the nude.
“Usually women are dressed,” Rozenberg said. “When a women is naked [in Greek art] it usually means she’s a prostitute.” This drinking bowl, she explained, “is a bit exceptional, because behind her you see the strigil and aryballos (scraper and oil juglet), which means she’s someone engaged in sport.”
Like the ancient Olympic Games, there were games honoring Hera in which women competed in sports. “It could be that the illustration here is of women preparing for competition,” Rozenberg argued.
“Through the ceramics you can enter the period a bit and understand a bit of the zeitgeist, the status of women, their beliefs, all the gods, all the myths,” she said.
The immaculately preserved ceramics were likely stored in tombs as offerings, Rozenberg suggested, allowing them to remain largely intact over the millennia until modern times.
How they made their way from tombs to the Bible Lands Museum, however, isn’t without its share of drama and intrigue.
Elie Borowski, a Polish-born Canadian Jew, worked as a curator at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto before leaving his post in the early 1950s to start dealing in art. He assembled his collection over the course of decades, oftentimes without revealing his sources.
As Jason Felch notes in his blog Chasing Aphrodite, Borowski had ties to the illegal antiquities trade and was mentioned “as a client of convicted antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici” and “on a handwritten organization chart of the illicit trade seized by Italian authorities in 2001.”
Over the years he and the museum he founded were criticized for buying and displaying artifacts of dubious provenance and therefore perpetuating illicit digging and sale of antiquities.
At the museum’s grand opening in 1992, his wife Batya Borowski parried objections to its collection having been assembled from the antiquities market.
“There is no collection in the world that is collected any differently,” she told reporters. “You’re right. It’s stolen. But we didn’t steal it. We didn’t encourage it to be stolen. On the contrary, we have collected it from all over the world and brought it back to Jerusalem.”
Borowski sold his assemblage to a Japanese museum of ancient Greek art to finance the completion of the Bible Lands. After a decade, the collection was sold to a gallery in New York, then went on auction at Christie’s in 2000, when the Borowskis bought back part of their collection.
Weiss, the museum director, affirmed that “the theft of antiquities is a serious issue, and protecting cultural heritage is a very serious issue” and that Borowski’s goods were “legally purchased… before the 1972 international regulations on cultural heritage.”
Not everyone has been convinced of the legality of Borowski’s collection. Archaeological ethicist David Gill pointed out in a 2007 blog post that the vast majority of the pots from the Borowski collection sold by Christie’s in 2000 have sketchy provenance, and that if the 1973 cut-off date for legality is used “92% of the collection could not be purchased by responsible museums.”
Regardless of the provenance of the artifacts, Silvia Rozenberg said, “I think it’s very important that a collection in private hands [opens] to the public to see.”