For Loaning the Elgin Marbles to Greece

I've been chatting to people about how one could loan the Parthenon sculptures Lord Elgin was given by the Ottoman Sultan to Athens.
Until now it has all been theoretical as it's always quickly pointed out that the British Museum does not loan iconic works - and they put this in writing to the then Greek Minister of Culture Venizelos under the MacGregor regime. It's the same answer he's given the Egyptians over the Rosetta Stone.
But we also just discovered that Neil MacGreggor* agreed to lend the equally iconic Cyrus Cylinder to Iran - and broke the news to the press once it had arrived there.
Iran is a country that stones women for adultery (defined as sex outside marriage - so even when one is single it's a crime). Iran is not where the Cylinder was found. Iran is a country building a damn that will flood the Tomb of the same Cyrus, first Achaemenid king. Iran is a country that persecutes people, particularly Jews, in a way that goes completely contrary to the laws passed by Cyrus and inscribed on the Cylinder. The Iranian government recently organised a contest for the best cartoon denying the Holocaust. Cyrus had let the Jews return to Israel after the Babylonian Captivity - Iran regularly threatens to bomb / nuke Israel. That's putting aside that the UK closed the Iranian embassy in London a long time ago for assorted bad acts including shooting a policewoman and sponsoring terrorism. The BM also has close relations with Sudan, another dubious state (Darfur massacres, etc) as does at least one Trustee.
Greece may not be perfect, but it's none of those things.
If we can lend the Cyrus Cylinder to Iran, I don't see how we can refuse to lend the Elgin Marbles to Athens.
I love seeing them in London, but I would also love to see the different sections together. A loan of a few years wouldn't do any harm.
Years ago I met Stelios EasyJet and jokingly asked if he'd sponsor shipping them to Athens. It was said in jest, so we can't hold him to it - but I'm pretty sure we can find plenty of Greek citizens and companies who'd chip in and it wouldn't be a problem raising the funds even in this economic climate when the government is having to cut costs. I rang a Greek friend, and he's made a pledge if the BM agrees to a loan.
William St Clair agreed to be on a committee to organise an exchange when we chatted about it.
The Cyrus loan is fresh news, and I have not thought out the details fully yet (this is a quick Blackberry post), but ...
I'd suggest either a five year loan or two three year loans from London to Athens (for example the pediments and metopes for three years then the frieze for three).
And the Greeks would lend London a series of exhibitions for up to a year each of important / iconic works; for example, the finds from Vergina, the exhibition on painted sculpture with the original sculptures as well as casts, and similar material.
I'd be very interested to hear thoughts and ideas - oh, and pledges would be good too.
(* = his surname is spelled a variety of way on the BM web site, which also claimed falsely that the Greek government had never asked for a loan)


  1. Very interesting post. I know little about these matters so excuse my ignorance, but is there fear that when it's time to return the marbles, the Greek government might not let them go? Is there some precedent for this? (besides the cylinder in Iran of course).

  2. D- While I agree with you that lending the Cyrus Cylinder is a mistake for all the reasons you state, I'm not sure it is much of a precedent for lending the Elgin marbles. The Cyrus Cylinder is an important artifact, but it is also easily transportable and not central to the history of the BM in the same way the Elgin marbles are. Best, Peter Tompa

  3. A 'cyclic loan' is a very interesting idea, but there would have to be some mechanism to prevent one side or another from reneging.

  4. I'm afraid that the current state of affairs in Greece does not give me any confidence that they would return the marbles, if the British Government was everr foolish enough to send them to Athens.

  5. Vicky - the Australians refused to return some loaned Aboriginal items a few years ago, and in Hawaii some natives buried some museum items (won't say where they are),etc. So yes, there is precedent from around the world. But, not there is no precedent from Greece of refusing to return stuff, nor should we assume the worst of them.

    Peter - what's on the Cyrus C is more important than the Parthenon, and being portable does not make it more returnable!

    David - I prefer to have faith in the Greeks returning items. And they'd be loaning us important material too - so wouldn't want them claiming we won't return it.


I do not moderate comments, but I remove spam, overt self-promotion ("read [link] my much better post on this") and what I consider hate speech (racism, homophobia etc).

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.