Will Elgin Marbles Ever Make It Back to Athens?

Martin Gayford has a piece on Bloomberg today:

Will Elgin Marbles Ever Make It Back to Athens?

By Martin Gayford

April 17 (Bloomberg) -- Is there the merest hint of movement in the world's most intractable restitution drama? That is, the issue of the Elgin -- or, if you prefer, Parthenon -- Marbles, which has flared up at intervals since Lord Elgin removed them from the Acropolis at Athens in the 19th century.

Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, appeared to open the door to compromise in an interview with Bloomberg News, but only by a fraction of an inch. In principle, would he and the trustees consider a request from Athens to borrow the marbles?

``There is no reason why any object in the BM -- if it is fit to travel -- shouldn't spend three months, six months somewhere else,'' he said. ``So, in principle, absolutely yes. The difficulty at the moment which would stand in the way of that is that the Greek government has formally, and recently, refused to acknowledge that the trustees are the owners of the objects. Therefore, in law the trustees could not possibly lend them.''

In addition, he said, ``the Greek government has never asked for a loan of the material from the British Museum. The issue has always been about the permanent removal of all the Parthenon material in the BM collection to Athens.''

Might that be the basis for some sort of compromise? Ownership, of course, is at the heart of the dispute. That question was raised as long ago as 1816, when Elgin sold the sculptures to the British government. His right of possession depends on interpretation of a letter of permission from an official of the Ottoman Empire, then ruling Greece.

Original Documents

The original document and the Ottoman regime both disappeared many years ago, and possession counts for a lot in law.

According to a legal opinion quoted by the historian William St. Clair in his book, ``Lord Elgin and the Marbles'' (1998), Elgin's actions were ``probably technically legal at the time,'' though threats and bribery may have played a part. Any attempt by the Greek government ``to try to recover the marbles in an international court would probably fail.''

It would be politically impossible for any Greek government to give way on this point because the marbles have become a symbol of Hellenic national identity. Professor Anthony Snodgrass, chair of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, said: ``This offer is a theoretical one in every sense. Mr. MacGregor knows that no Greek government could ever make a formal concession that the BM has legal ownership.''


On the other hand, the British Museum understandably fears that if it gave way in this case, it, and other major museums, would receive an avalanche of demands from around the world for the return of items acquired by fair, and less than fair, means in the colonial era.

So, stalemate? Maybe not. There was considerable speculation about a possible loan to coincide with the Athens Olympics in 2004. That came to nothing, partly because of the postponement of the opening of the new Acropolis Museum, which is now years behind schedule after a log-jam of legal disputes about home demolitions, completion of archaeological digs and cost over-runs.

That gleaming institution is set for completion this summer and inauguration in the autumn. Meanwhile, the British Museum is becoming more and more enthusiastic about temporary exhibitions. A blockbuster, the Terracotta Army, opens in September. Brand new, much larger exhibition galleries are scheduled for 2012.

Spectacular Show

There is scope for a spectacular and -- from the scholarly point of view -- exciting exhibition about the Parthenon sculptures. It is often assumed that all of them are in London. Actually, Elgin only extracted about half from the temple.

Most or the rest are still in Athens, with a couple of panels in the Louvre and fragments scattered all over the place. In some cases, fragments of the same figure are on opposite side of Europe. The celebrated frieze is split in two.

If you could put it all back together, you'd have the blockbuster to end all blockbusters. Setting the question of ownership aside, that's a prospect to entice any museum director.

Perhaps we should admit that the dispute about ownership is unresolvable. In the diplomatic world, the only way forward in such difficult cases is to find a formula that each side can accept. Is there one here? ``The very most that might be negotiable,'' Snodgrass said, ``would be an agreement by the Greek government that the marbles were legally acquired from Lord Elgin by Parliament, for the Museum.''

Is that enough? The reward for an agreement -- especially for the art-loving public of the world -- would be enormous.

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