It was a spat that nobody wanted – neither the Greeks, the Qataris nor, say officials, the two nude statues that sparked the furore.
But in a classic clash of cultures, Greece has found itself at odds with the oil-rich state – a nation it is keen to woo financially – over the presentation of masterworks depicting athletes in an exhibition dedicated to the Olympic games.
“The statues are now back at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens,” said a culture ministry official.
The dispute, though authorities are not calling it that, broke when Greece’s culture minister, Costas Tzavaras, arrived in Doha last month to discover the “anatomically challenging” treasures cloaked in cloth for fear of offending female spectators.
“In a society where there are certain laws and traditions authorities felt women would be scandalised by seeing such things, even on statues,” added the official who was present at the time.
“The minister, of course, said while he totally respected local customs he couldn’t accept the antiquities not being exhibited in their natural state,” she told the Guardian. “They were great works of art and aesthetically it was wrong.”
The statues, an archaic-era Greek youth and a Roman-era copy of a classical athlete, were to be the centrepiece of an exhibition entitled Olympic Games: Past and Present. Bankrupt Greece was delighted to facilitate when organisers in Doha got in touch. Mired in its worst economic crisis in modern times, the debt-stricken country is eager for investment from the Gulf state, which this year promised to pour €1bn into a joint investment fund.
In another hopeful sign, the emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, recently bought six isles in the Ionian sea with a view to building palaces on them for his three wives and 24 children.
Visiting the Qatari capital for the opening of the show, Tzavaras seized the opportunity to describe the exhibition as “opening a bridge of friendship” between the countries. The discovery of the covered-up antiquities was a setback few had envisaged.
“We don’t want to portray it as a row, and we certainly didn’t want it to overshadow the exhibition,” explained the official. “It was all very friendly. When they turned down our request (to remove the cloth) the statues were boxed up again and sent back to Athens.”
Mystery, nonetheless, shrouds the affair. The show, which had previously been hosted in Berlin, features more than 700 artworks from around Greece, including numerous nude statues. It remains unclear why Qatari authorities had taken such umbrage over the antiquities in question, although officials in Athens described the young athletes – both from Eleusis – as being especially beautiful.