The story of the ring belonging to Jane Austen, purchased by Kelly Clarkson has been running in the news for some time now. First there was the initial outcry, then there was the temporary export ban, and now, the money has finally been raised to keep it in the UK.
After the campaign to keep the ring in Britain started, people from all around the world supplied donations to the Jane Austen Museum, helping them to raise the funds to prevent it from being sent abroad.
The same thing often happens – we hear about some priceless artwork or other, and then various people who are campaigning to stop it being sent to some foreign museum. But, when Greece asks for the Parthenon Marbles back, or Nigeria asks for the Benin bronzes, they are accused of (amongst other things) cultural nationalism. Museum directors look down on them & imply that they are not playing the game that they are meant to be playing – highlighting the spread of cultural knowledge etcetera that having these items outside their country brings about.
Now many comparisons have been drawn by people commenting on press articles and on twitter to the case of the Parthenon Marbles. However, I would argue that the cases are in no way similar. As I have often mentioned before, restitution cases are all unique – each has their own set of circumstances & each should be treated on its own merits.
The case of the Elgin Marbles is, I believe, far stronger than that of Jane Austen’s ring. Little is known about the origins of the ring. Nobody is sure whether Austen purchased it herself, or was given it as a gift. As such, although it is connected to her through her ownership, it could hardly be classed as inextricably linked. Similar rings could have belonged to many other people & without the full knowledge of the provenance, nobody would be able to identify which one had belonged to Austen & which had belonged to someone else. Furthermore, rings are inherently mobile objects. They are designed to be worn, or carried about. As a result, there is little that really links a ring to a specific location or region of the world.
Compare this to the Parthenon Sculptures – they were designed to be part of the temple of Athena on the Acropolis. In many cases, they were actually carved in-situ and some of them formed structural elements. They were clearly designed with a specific location in mind, not to be re-arranged, sawn apart & exhibited elsewhere. If Kelly Clarkson’s purchase of the ring had gone ahead, no damage would have been caused to it. The ring could be returned at a later point in time, and no harm would have been caused by its time away from the country.
When the Parthenon Sculptures were removed by Elgin, he only had a permit to remove loose items and to take casts. The permits he had, gave no mention of dismantling the building to remove still intact sculptures. As such, the legality of the removal of the sculptures is at best questionable. In the case of the ring, the sale was completely legitimate – there is no suggestion that anything about the process was not above board.
Bearing in mind the above, the Parthenon Marbles should be seen as a far stronger case, than that of Jane Austen’s ring. So, logically, if we are arguing for the Austen’s ring to remain in the UK, then the same museums, individuals & institutions should equally be arguing for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures. But as it is a stronger case, the arguments should thus also be stronger.
Unfortunately I have not seen this happening. Many individuals support the return of the Parthenon Marbles – but the British establishment does not. More consistency and less hypocrisy is required. The British Museum should learn from the humility of Kelly Clarkson’s gracious response on learning that she would not be able to keep the ring “The ring is a beautiful national treasure and I am happy to know that so many Jane Austen fans will get to see it at Jane Austen’s House Museum.”
23 September 2013 Last updated at 15:37
Kelly Clarkson thwarted in bid to keep Jane Austen ring
US singer Kelly Clarkson has been thwarted in her bid to take a ring which once belonged to Jane Austen out of the UK.
She bought the turquoise and gold ring for £152,450 at auction last year, outbidding the Jane Austen’s House Museum.
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