By Malcolm Brabant
BBC News, Athens
Greece's culture minister has called on Christie's, the London auction house, to suspend this week's auction of treasures belonging to the former Greek royal household.
The Christie's auction had been expected to net about £2m
George Voulgarakis sent a letter to Christie's claiming that the artefacts belonged to the Greek state. It will be delivered via the Greek Embassy's London solicitors.
The intervention took place just as the dealers were hosting a lavish champagne reception to boost interest in the sale which had been expected to net about £2m.
Christie's has refused to identify the vendor but it is widely believed to be Greece's former King Constantine, who has lived in exile in London for more than three decades.
In 1991, under an agreement with the then Conservative government in Athens, Constantine was allowed to remove some of his chattels from his beloved, and now semi-derelict summer palace at Tatoi, in the pine-clad foothills north of the Greek capital.
On his website (www.formerkingofgreece.org), the 66-year-old ex-monarch vigorously denies that he or any members of his family are the sellers.
Constantine also rejects suggestions that the collection of antique silver and Faberge objets d'art was stolen from Tatoi.
'Signed and stamped'
Christie's denies any impropriety.
"It's the property of King George I of Greece and his descendants. It left Greece in 1991 with correct paperwork and has been in storage since then," Harry Williams-Bukeley, head of Christie's silver department, told the BBC.
His remarks appear at odds with those of the court of ex-King Constantine.
The former king vigorously denies he is the seller of the antiquities
Before Mr Williams-Bukeley spoke to us in London, I received an email from the former monarch's senior aide, Constantinos Strongylos, in which he said: "Certain pieces that were exported from Greece in 1991 were sold and some of them appear in this sale.
"If Christie's does not wish to give information about the seller, then I guess you just have to respect that," he said.
I then asked Mr Strongylos, via email, to clarify the apparent discrepancy between those two comments.
Had the king managed to sell all of the collection unseen while it was still in storage?
Mr Strongylos did not reply.
In a previous email exchange I asked him: "Does the former king have the documentation to prove that none of the articles on sale belong to the state of Greece?
"Does he still have copies of the documents signed and stamped by the Ministry of Culture when Tatoi was emptied in 1991 that will prove the provenance of the articles on sale at Christie's?"
Mr Strongylos replied: "This is a rather silly question. The king does not have to prove anything. But to satisfy your curiosity, yes we still have all the documents signed and stamped which accompanied the chattels that were exported in 1991."
These responses do not satisfy opposition politicians in Greece who have been leading efforts to scupper the Christie's sale.
"According to Greek legislation, whatever was given to the king while he was representing the country belongs to the Greek people," said Liana Kanelli, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Michalis Papagiannakis, a former MEP for the Coalition of the Left, said: "It is a question of responsibility of the auction house - it is a question of transparency.
"Christies should suspend it, yes, just waiting to have it clear that there is no illegal action.
Now, at the 11th hour, Culture Minister George Voulgarakis has been galvanized into action, possibly embarrassed at suggestions that the Conservatives were staying quiet because their previous administration had allowed Constantine to export some of his possessions.
Mr Voulgarakis is running an aggressive campaign to stamp out the illicit trade in antiquities in the hope that one day Britain will restore to the Parthenon the frieze known as the Elgin Marbles.
Constantine was allowed to remove chattels from his summer palace
The Greeks would like Christie's to voluntarily suspend the sale so that their culture ministry officials can verify the provenance of the former royal treasures.
But short of obtaining an injunction, there is little they can do to force the issue.
In 2002, the European Court of Human Rights ordered Greece to pay £7m in compensation to the former king for the loss of Tatoi and other property.
Constantine Glucksberg, as he is derisively called in his homeland, travels on a Danish diplomatic passport and is currently looking for a new home in Greece.
He is said to complain that every time his name is mentioned to possible vendors the price goes up.