The Times’s Michael Binyon says the issue of the Elgin Marbles signals a clear shift in public opinion on what to do with treasures and artefacts transferred to museums in Europe
They are among the most beautiful and famous sculptures in the world – sublime in their depiction of the human form and emotions of martial movement. Millions have marvelled at the white marble carvings that once adorned the Parthenon in Athens and for the past two centuries have reposed in the British Museum. But they may not remain there for long. For the past 50 years Greece has campaigned to return its famous treasures, known in Britain as the Elgin Marbles, to Athens. And that campaign has just been given a boost by the decision of The Times, Britain’s influential daily newspaper, to change its editorial line and for the first time call for the sculptures to be sent back to Greece.
The paper’s editorial was prompted by the recent agreement between Greece and Italy to return another fragment of the Parthenon, which was acquired from Ottoman-controlled Athens and subsequently sold to the University of Palermo. In return, Italy will receive from Greece a fifth century BC statue of Athena and an amphora. The deal is seen as a precedent that bolsters the case for the return of all the other Parthenon sculptures.
But it has alarmed some of the world’s great museums, which believe that the growing demands around the world for the return of objects and artistic artefacts originating in other countries will strip them of most of their treasures and leave little of value to display.
With the enthusiastic support of the Greek prime minister, Greek scholars, historians and politicians are now preparing to launch a new campaign to persuade the British Government and the British Museum to send the sculptures back to a new museum on the Acropolis, where they will be reunited with the rest of the Parthenon frieze. For years the Greek government has tried to use political, ethical and legal means to persuade the British government to change its mind, without success. The issue, first raised by Melina Mercouri, the Greek singer and former minister of culture, has aroused deep passions and has become a stumbling block in Anglo-Greek relations.
Until now, Britain has insisted that the sculptures – about half those carved by Phidias, the famous architect of the Parthenon – were legally acquired by Lord Elgin, who bought them from the Ottoman authorities, then the rulers of Greece, in 1812. They were then sold to the British government in 1816, and Parliament decided they should be displayed in the British Museum. Greece argues that the Turkish authorities had no right to sell these masterpieces of classical art, carved in Athens some 1,500 years before the Ottoman conquest of Greece. In effect, Greece says, the marbles were looted.
In recent years there has been a clear shift in public opinion on what to do with treasures and artefacts transferred to museums in Europe. Many were acquired in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by colonial rulers of much of Africa and Asia. International law now insists that treasures that are today looted or illegally removed from where they were discovered by archaeologists must be returned and those smuggling valuable artefacts abroad should be criminally prosecuted. But it is more difficult to decide what to do about treasures that were legally acquired during colonial times.
Various high-profile cases have influenced today’s thinking. Several American museums, especially the richer ones, have been forced by court rulings to return art that was bought on the open market but was later found to have been looted or stolen. Recently Britain has returned the Benin bronzes, a series of beautiful bronze figures created over several centuries in the west African kingdom of Benin. These were seized by Britain after bloody clashes with Benin and the capture by Britain of Benin City in 1897. Britain has accepted that these valuable national treasures, housed in the British Museum, should be given back to west Africa.
The Parthenon Marbles may now be seen as a similar case. But Britain has argued they were bought, not stolen, and that it still has the right of possession. Britain also advanced other arguments why the treasures should stay in London. It says that the dirty, smog-filled atmosphere of modern Athens is now seriously damaging all the remaining sculptures on the Acropolis, whereas the Elgin marbles have been kept in almost pristine condition in a clean, safe environment. It also argues that in London many more people are able to see these glorious treasures of the classical world than in Athens. But both arguments are now much weaker. Not only have the Marbles in London already been damaged by inappropriate cleaning, but Greece has built a magnificent museum next to the Acropolis, clean, safe and accessible, where the original sculptures are now kept and where the Marbles would complete the frieze.
A more compelling argument has been made by Neil MacGregor, the influential former director of the British Museum, on the future of all museums. Can any of the great collections continue to hold on to works bought, stolen or taken from other countries in the past? Cultural artefacts that were obviously looted after war or conquest, such as the Benin bronzes, must certainly be returned. But what about the thousands of sculptures, paintings, mummies and even complete buildings that have been removed from the place where they were made or found? Must the mummies, jewellery and other objects excavated from ancient Egyptian tombs all return to Egypt? Should the Mona Lisa be returned to Italy? Or the famous horsemen on St Mark’s cathedral in Venice go back to Istanbul, where they were seized from the Byzantine rulers by Venetians during the sack of Constantinople during the fourth crusade? They were themselves looted by Napoleon after his conquest of Venice in 1798 but returned in 1815.
France is probably even more worried than Britain by the demand to return treasures in its museums that came from elsewhere. Napoleon tended to pick the best of the world’s treasures after his conquests. It has been argued that the Rosetta Stone, the key to decoding ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, would have never been recognised had French scholars not seen it as part of a building and taken it during Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt. It has been in London, since his defeat in Egypt by the British in 1801. Should it go back to Egypt? Germany also has valuable classical treasures: the famous statue of the Egyptian goddess Nefertiti is in Berlin; an entire ancient altar in Pergamon has been moved from Turkey to Berlin and now has a museum of its own, also holding other excavations from Egypt, Babylon and the Near East. German archaeologists were largely responsible for the discovery of ancient Troy and took many of the objects found there back to Germany.
Italy is less concerned about getting back all the paintings from its heyday in the Renaissance. It has so many thousands that it does not need more brought back from abroad; and most were legitimately sold and not taken by conquest.
Campaigners to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece know that they may have a long struggle. Britain will fight hard over the question of ownership. A compromise could be found if the Marbles were sold back to Greece for a nominal sum. And Greece has already made a generous offer to replace the Marbles in London with a permanently rotating exhibition of some of the many classical treasures not already on display in Athens – thus giving the rest of the world a greater chance to see them.
For most people, however, the clinching argument is ethical rather than economic. The Parthenon is the bedrock of Greek culture and identity. Splitting up its treasures is like suggesting that the First Folio of Shakespeare’s works could be complete even if the play Hamlet was removed and sold separately. Artistic works need to be kept whole. And by returning the Marbles, Britain would make a magnanimous and worthy gesture at a time when it sorely needs to rekindle friendships with its European neighbours.