A stolen collection of about 100 artifacts dating back more than 7,000 years — including what appear to be very early human portraits — were displayed in Greece Tuesday, for the first time since being smuggled to Germany.
The Neolithic-era artifacts were stolen by armed burglars from a private collection in Larissa, central Greece, in 1985 and seized by German police in Munich a year later. The case had been virtually forgotten until a Munich court ruled in August that the loot should be returned to Greece.
"These works are exceptional examples of the Neolithic (culture)," Culture Minister Michalis Liapis said. "We are very happy to get them back, as we consider antiquities theft a global scourge."
The 94 stone and pottery works _ statuettes, tools and tiny vases _ mostly date between 6500 and 5300 B.C. and come from the central Thessaly region, where Greece's most important Neolithic settlements have been excavated.
Archaeologist Nikos Kaltsas, director of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, said the artifacts, which are up to 5 inches high, "date to the dawn of human awareness" and appear to include portraits of Neolithic women.
"The artwork appears primitive, but is very expressive," he said. "The statuettes of women ... with their complex hairdos, the differences in facial characteristics and expressions, indicate that these are portraits of real people."
The stolen pieces were smuggled to Munich, where the thieves tried to sell them to a local museum, Liapis said. Museum officials tipped off the police, who seized the works. Nobody was convicted in the theft, and Greek authorities only launched a serious legal bid for their return six months ago.
"The case had been put on the back burner," Liapis said. Liapis did not explain the delay, but his predecessor, George Voulgarakis — who launched the bid in April — blamed "state inefficiency."
Collector Constantinos Theodoropoulos, from whose house the works were stolen, has donated the artifacts to the state. They will be temporarily exhibited in Athens before being transferred to a museum in Larissa, where they will be displayed along with the rest of Theodoropoulos' collection — some 2,500 Neolithic artifacts.
Theodoropoulos said more than 60 stolen pieces were still missing.
"But these were not as good as the ones we got back," he said.