What are ancient Greek artifacts doing in presidential libraries and museums across America? In the 1940s, Greek politicians started to gift American presidents and politicians with Greek antiquities. Nassos Papalexandrou of the University of Texas at Austin researches these artifacts and why they were given as gifts. Getty antiquities curator Kenneth Lapatin interviewed Papalexandrou for The Getty Iris.
Papalexandrou began his research when he discovered an amphora (a ceramic vessel used to transport goods during the Roman and medieval periods) that a delegation from the Greek parliament had presented to Sam Rayburn, Speaker of the House at the time, in 1949. The gift was for Rayburn’s support of the Marshall Plan, which aided Greece in recovering from World War II.
He says, “Since then, Greek antiquities or modern artifacts inspired by antiquity have regularly been presented as diplomatic gifts to U.S. presidents or high-ranking officials,” adding that “Antiquities may be silent, yet they are very eloquent tools when it comes to diplomacy.” Diverse cultures have historically given gifts to establish agreements and communicate hopes and expectations.
The artifacts were also chosen to convey ideological messages and sometimes customized to reflect the occasion of the gift. Truman was given an architectural block from the Athena Nike Temple on the Acropolis, with a modern inscription of “proxenos,” meaning honorary consul. Kennedy was presented with heavy amphorae from former Greek prime minister Kostas Karamanlis, who was in America to discuss business and trade.