This story intrigued me for a number of reasons. While I was writing Lost Treasures: True Stories of Discovery, it arrived much like treasure sometimes does as an unexpected find, hidden but always there waiting to be found. At the time, the story was new to me. The treasure wasn’t, though. It had been viewed by thousands daily in the The Louvre long before I was born.
The story was just quirky enough to be interesting, just strange enough to engage readers. Or so I hoped.
Two men – one a farmer, the other a French naval officer – found the statue. Now they were locked in a battle for possession. Who would own it and what was its real worth?
Every day thousands of visitors swarm the Louvre, the largest museum in Paris. Many of them come to gaze at a statue of a woman. The statue is in three pieces. Its arms are missing. It is scratched and chipped. It is one of the world’s great treasures.
The statue is famous, yet few know the story of how, had it not been for two men – one a simple farmer, the other a sophisticated French officer – the statue might never have made it to the Louvre. For that story, we need to turn to April 8, 1820 and visit the island of Milos in the Mediterranean to stand in the rubble of an ancient Greek theatre thousands of years old.
Yorgos, a farmer, tugged on the stones along the crumbling old wall. Some were loose and just the right size for the structure Yorgos was building at his home a short distance away. Others were too large or irregularly-shaped to be of much use. Yorgos tossed these aside.
In the ruins, smothered with dirt, Yorgos spotted a promising piece. He dug around it, tearing it loose, dragging it into the open to examine it carefully. The piece was larger than he first thought. Oddly shaped, too, and smoothly polished.
A statue. Beautiful, perhaps, but useless to the farmer.
Twenty paces away, 23 year-old Olivier Voutier toiled in the dirt. The French naval officer’s ship was stationed in the harbour, leaving him with little to do. The day was a fine one, though, to indulge in one of his passions – archaeology. Voutier had heard that there were ruins on the island of Milos, and that on this very spot there had once been an ancient Greek theatre. Perhaps, with a bit of digging, he’d fine something special.
Voutier convinced two sailors to accompany him. Armed with picks and shovels, they chipped at the ruins, dismantling walls and foundations, tearing apart the ruins one stone at a time. In short order, they had unearthed a number of valuable items – a carved foot and two broken statues among others.
From the corner of his eye, Voutier spotted another man nearby. A local farmer, it appeared. Like them, the man had been digging, but now he had stopped and was standing motionless, staring at something he had unearthed. Curious, Voutier wandered over.
Yorgos stared at the carved block for some time. It was a delicate piece and even the uneducated farmer could tell that it was beautiful. But it was of no value to him. It was too large, heavy and lopsided. Best he should leave it.
Yorgos shovelled dirt over the stone, then stopped when Voutier came near. Voutier stooped low, momentarily entranced. What was this? A marble statue? A piece of one, at least. Lying on its side. Partly buried.
Dig some more, Voutier implored. He offered Yorgos money and the farmer readily agreed, dreams of new-found wealth now taking hold. Slowly, with more digging, a statue rose from the dirt. It was the nude upper half of a woman. The statue’s torso was chipped and scraped, its nose broken and arms missing, the carved surface stained from centuries in the dirt.
Even though it was damaged, Voutier sensed that there was something extraordinary about the statue. Its features were delicate and graceful, the lines simple but elegant. Clearly the statue was ancient and the work of a skilled artisan.
But where was the rest of the statue? There had to be more. A base, at the very least.
Voutier offered the farmer more money. Yorgos dug, flinging dirt and rubble aside with even greater zeal. A second piece emerged, and then with a bit more searching, a third one, smaller than the other two.
The three pieces fit together like a puzzle, and the two men set about reconstructing the statue. They piled up the pieces – a base at the bottom, the delicately carved torso on top, and the third smaller piece in between, acting as a sort of wedge keeping the whole thing balanced. They stepped back to take a look, the simple farmer and the sophisticated naval officer did. The statue was larger than life-size, majestic and breath-taking.
The statue rightly belonged to Yorgos. After all, he had been the first to find it. But clearly, Yorgos didn’t want the statue. He wanted money instead, and Voutier knew that for the right price the statue could be bought. He scurried away to find a government official on the island. The statue must be claimed for France, he decided, and only a representative of the French government could do that. Watch the statue, he told Yorgos. I’ll be back.
While Voutier was away, Yorgos dug some more. He found a marble hand holding an apple, a badly mutilated piece of an arm, and two pillars, each with a carved head on top. By the time, Voutier arrived with the government official, Yorgos had reevaluated the treasure. He wanted more for the statue now. Enough, at least, to buy a good donkey.
The French official, a round-shaped man named Louis Brest, hesitated. Should he dish out the money from his own pocket? Was the statue really worth that much? What proof did he have that this statue was a masterpiece? All he had was the word of Voutier, an amateur archaeologist.
Brest refused to close the deal. Not today, he explained. I’ll be back in a few days if I’m interested. Then he left. Discouraged by Brest’s decision, Voutier gave up. He headed back to his ship, determined to forget the whole thing.
But Yorgos didn’t forget. Nor was he discouraged. The statue was worth money, he figured. Even if the French were not interested, others might be. Yorgos lugged the upper half of the statue to a cowshed near his home along with the arm fragments, broken hand, and two pillars. He left the base and middle piece behind. They were not worth as much, he reasoned, and were not as likely to be stolen.
The top half of the statue sat in the cowshed for days, surrounded by manure and straw, and guarded by Yorgos’ mother who sat at the door. Eventually, Brest returned with other French officers. After much dickering, they submitted to Yorgos’ demands, giving him the money he requested. The complete statue, all three sections and the other pieces found nearby, was carefully crated and shipped to France.
The statue arrived in Paris in February 1821. It was presented to Emperor Louis XVIII who immediately named the statue Venus de Milo. In Greek mythology, Venus is the goddess of love. The figure, scholars believe, once adorned a temple on the island of Melos. When the temple was destroyed, devoted worshippers hid the statue in a chamber to protect it.
Today, the Venus de Milo stands in an alcove of the Louvre, its three pieces assembled, the seams between them almost invisible. Resurrected from the dirt by two men – one a simple farmer, the other a sophisticated French officer – it is one of the world’s greatest treasures.