March 1, 2004

Calls for Parthenon Marbles return

Posted at 1:45 pm in Elgin Marbles, Marbles Reunited

Debate on the Parthenon Marbles continues – with many different opinions.

Star Ledger (New Jersey)

Crusade calls for art’s return
Amid Olympic fervor, Britain entreated to give back Greek masterpieces
Sunday, February 29, 2004
For the Star-Ledger

LONDON — When a British ambassador pried some 70 tons of sculpture from the walls of the Parthenon in the early 1800s to decorate his Scottish estate, Athens was a remote outpost of the Ottoman Empire.

Greece did not exist as an independent country. And ancient treasures around the world belonged to anyone important and rich enough to cart them away.

Now, with the approach of this summer’s Olympics in Athens, some advocates of the sculptures’ return hope they can attain through public opinion what they couldn’t through international law.

The ambassador’s marble souvenirs — known in England as the “Elgin marbles” after Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin — lie at the heart of one of the world’s oldest and most famous cases of misplaced art. The 2,500-year-old Parthenon pieces, purchased by the British government from Lord Elgin in 1816, sit on display at the British Museum.

For decades, heads of state, politicians and celebrities have lobbied the British government and the museum to return the sculptures to Greece. The dispute is a sore point in Greek-British relations.

Last month, a London group calling itself Marbles Reunited launched a flashy campaign to reignite the historic debate. The cause has attracted some big names, including the former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, 13 Olympic medalists and actresses Emma Thompson, Dame Judi Dench and Vanessa Redgrave.

Proponents of the return suggested Great Britain should consider repatriation if London is serious about its bid to host the 2012 Olympics.

“You only get the Olympics if you’ve got friends around the world, and Britain, to be honest, doesn’t have too many friends around the world at the moment,” said Peter Chegwyn, the group’s campaign director.

The marbles spark rich debate among cultural property scholars. John Henry Merryman, a Stanford Law School professor who published a book about the case, argues against applying current principles retroactively.

“Greece was a quiet, dusty corner of the Ottoman Empire ruled from Constantinople. The sultan was the ruler of public property. The Parthenon was the sultan’s property,” he said.

“If the law were then the way it is today, then what was done then would be illegal. But that’s not the case. If they say, ‘We should reapply today’s standards,’ that’s an argument that legally doesn’t have a lot of force.”

But David Rudenstine, dean of Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, researched the subject in the 1990s and said he found Merryman and previous scholars had overlooked crucial details. According to Rudenstine, the British Parliament tampered with evidence in preparing an 1816 report to make Elgin’s acquisition look more authentic and legitimate.

“They committed fraud,” Rudenstine said of the Parliamentarians.

In a break from previous strategies, the organizers of Marbles Reunited set aside historic arguments over ownership, conceding that they would never win a legal case. They focused instead on arranging a “long-term loan” to Greece.

“Whether Elgin acquired them legally or not, the British government purchased them legally from him. (Before 1970) if you bought something in good faith from someone who had stolen it, it would be very difficult to get it back,” said Freddie New, a British advocate for restitution.

The group’s proposal would put the sculptures on display indefinitely at the new Acropolis Museum, which is under construction near the Parthenon. The ancient Greeks’ awesome artistic achievements become clear only when the remnants appear together, the group argues.

“It’s an unedifying experience to see half the statues in London, and have to see the other half in Athens. You wouldn’t expect to see half the Mona Lisa at a time,” Chegwyn said.

Driving the renewed efforts is a sense that public opinion may be shifting in favor of repatriation.

“The age in which many objects were removed was the age of colonization,” said Cambridge scholar Jeanette Greenfield. “The mind-set of the world has altered. Cultural theft was cruel and unjust. These thefts were often accompanied by murder and the destruction of other civilizations.”

The British Museum remains staunchly opposed to relinquishing control of the sculptures. About half of its 5 million visitors each year stop to see the exhibit in a 1930s gallery built especially for them, according to the museum. (Advocates for the return say their surveys found only one in five visitors see the marbles in London.)

In defending its stake, the museum points out “the British Museum Trustees’ title to the objects is entirely secure under any European legal system. The trustees’ duty is to hold the objects so as to secure maximum public benefit.”

The museum also claims that it is a better steward of the art than is Greece, whose remaining store of Parthenon sculptures have been exposed to harsh weather conditions or stored out of the public’s eye.

“The Parthenon Marbles have been central to the museum’s collections, and to its purpose, for almost 200 years. Only here can the worldwide significance of the sculptures be fully grasped,” Neil MacGregor, the museum’s director, said last month.

Underlying the arguments is the notion that the British have as good a claim to the sculptures as the Greeks do at this point.

As MacGregor wrote in the Sunday Times of London last month: “All great works of art are surely the common inheritance of humanity. Like Shakespeare or Beethoven, the art of Greece belongs to all.”

But the museum explicitly avoids stating what many Britons hold true: Restoring the marbles to the Parthenon would be a slippery slope in Great Britain, where much public art owes its provenance to colonial-age collectors.

“Such a move would be an unwelcome precedent,” one opponent famously stated in a House of Lords debate in 1997. “If we started to return works of art to other countries, there would not be much left in our museums and galleries.”

The Parthenon is the ancient Greek temple constructed during Athens’ political and artistic heyday in honor of the goddess Athena. It sits atop the Acropolis, overlooking the city. Constructed completely of white marble, it represents classical perfection in Greek architecture and is an international symbol of Greek civilization.

Among its unusual features were structural statues that helped support the building. They showed scenes from Greek mythology, Athenian legend and a 525-foot long procession to the temple.

In the centuries since its peak, the building has been used as a Christian church and an Islamic mosque. In the 17th century, it became a storehouse for Turkish ammunition. In 1687, a Venetian cannonball hit stockpiles of Turkish gunpowder stored inside the building, blowing the roof off.

By the time Lord Elgin arrived at his post to the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople in 1799, the monument had lost much of its grandeur. But the ambassador was not shy about taking what was left. Among his haul were parts of 17 segments of a frieze that once adorned the Parthenon’s upper sections.

The colossal slabs took approximately a decade to dismantle and ship, but they never made it past London. Short on cash, the ambassador sold the collection to the British government.

For years, few Britons questioned the acquisition. But according to some polls, the tide of public opinion may be turning.

Advocates believe the eventual return of the marbles is just a matter of time.

“It would have been great and appropriate for the marbles to return for the Olympics. This will not happen,” Greenfield said. “Another great anniversary can be chosen. The arguments will not go away.”

Rebecca Goldsmith

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