Home of the Parthenon and the setting of Mama Mia, Greece has long been revered as a land of mystery and mythology. Recently, its finances have also become the stuff of legend, as poor accounting has left the ailing country with a 2010 budget shortfall estimated at 10.5% of GDP -- approximately $33.4 billion. With proposed austerity measures threatening to tear Greece apart, it's time for some creative thinking.
In addition to its plans to increase taxes and cut benefits, Greece is also attempting to sell many of its assets. Last year, the government rejected a proposal to sell some of the Greek islands, but this year, it has placed many of its airports, railroads, energy companies and other public works on the auction block.
Most Valuable Assets
Not to dismiss the attraction of Greek sewers, utilities and vacant lots, but the country's most valuable treasure is its collection of cultural artifacts. Unfortunately, it's hard to put a price on these sites: Asked to appraise them, a representative of one U.N.-sponsored cultural heritage group stated that they "could only be described as 'priceless.'" Similarly, Sotheby's and Lloyd's of London both refused to hazard guesses about price tags for Greece's most invaluable resources.
Appraisal problems aside, there is certainly a precedent for selling old buildings and structures to aid in their preservation. For example, when the city of London decided to replace the old London Bridge in 1968, it sold the structure to Missouri entrepreneur Robert P. McCullough, who used it as the centerpiece for a British-themed community in Arizona. At the time, the bridge -- which was built in 1822 -- fetched $2.4 million, the equivalent of $16.3 million in 2011 dollars.
But when it comes to evaluating ancient sites, pricing becomes a bit tougher. Ancient archaeological sites very rarely trade hands, as most countries are dedicated to preserving their cultural heritage. One of the few exceptions is Egypt's Temple of Dendur, a Roman structure that dates to 22 B.C.E. When Egypt built the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s, it moved three temples that were on land due to be flooded by the massive hydroelectric project. One of these, Dendur, was given to the United States in return for $16.5 million in aid. While this sum -- plus $9.5 million in relocation costs that was provided by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art -- makes an interesting starting place for pricing ancient sites, Egypt's free-gift-with-economic-aid scheme makes it hard to actually determine the value of Dendur.
In the end, selling its cultural assets would be a losing proposition for Greece. After all, tourism accounts for more than 15% of the country's income, and many visitors come to see the crumbling remnants of ancient Hellas. While getting rid of these artifacts might help shore up finances in the short term, they would eventually devastate the country's economy.
On the other hand, Greece could always try following the same route as American sports teams and civic parks by auctioning off naming rights for its cultural treasures. After all, corporate sponsorship in the U.S. routinely generates millions of dollars for public works that might otherwise fall short. While the Pepsico Parthenon, the Tropicana Temple of Hephaestus and the Ameriquest Acropolis might seem shamefully commercial, they could quite easily leave Greece's bureaucrats laughing all the way to the bank. For that matter, how many of his billions would Larry Ellison be willing to donate for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to name the Oracle.com Temple of Delphi?
If all else fails, Greece could always try raking back some money from artifacts that have already found their way into foreign hands. The Elgin Marbles, sculptures that once decorated the Parthenon and Acropolis, are -- officially -- priceless. Stolen in the early 1800's by Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin, the pieces ended up in the British Museum, where they are still on display.
While several art experts have argued that it is impossible to place a value on the Elgin marbles, the Acropolis Museum's far less impressive collection of antiquities was insured for $567 million in 2007. Given that the British Museum still refuses to repatriate Elgin's ill-gotten treasures, it seems reasonable to consider levying a toll on their continued usage. Perhaps $33.4 billion might be a good place to start the negotiations?
Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.