January 29, 2004

Can the Parthenon Sculptures ownership row ever be resolved?

Posted at 2:04 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles

There have been a wide range of responses to letters in The Times about the Elgin Marbles a few days ago.

The Times

January 28, 2004

Playing marbles
Can the row over ownership of the Parthenon sculptures ever be resolved?
YOUR debate about the Elgin Marbles (January 20) makes depressing reading. The same old arguments repeated on both sides, and no hint of compromise offered or accepted. It must be time, for the sake of the friendship which ought to exist between the Greeks and the British, to seek a solution to this corrosive quarrel.

My solution would be that we give the Duveen Gallery and the land it stands on to Greece, and we lend them the Marbles for as long as they keep them in the gallery.

The small benefit is that the Marbles would be restored to Greek soil. The large benefit is that Bloomsbury could become the antechamber to the Acropolis. With proper presentation, the thousands of visitors to the Marbles could be given such a tantalising taste of the Acropolis that few would resist going immediately to the travel office in the corner to book their trip to Athens, because, surely, there would be no better place in the world for a Greek tourist office than in the Duveen Gallery in London.

With such a commercial prize as this, the Greeks might think the deal worth doing, and once they have agreed, the pain and insult may lessen.

What other solutions are there out there?

Edward Raikes, Yalding,

Bad conservation
THE Elgin Marbles are site-specific sculptures made in collaboration with the architects, designers and craftspeople. The physical position and point of view, as well as the quality of the light, colour and reflective features of the stone, presented a powerful visual statement and would have been important influences on the sculptor. Whatever Elgin’s motives were for removing the Marbles, he certainly destroyed the monumental integrity of the work.

Conservation needs to respect the intention of the artist, otherwise it becomes merely the preservation of curios. Therefore, it is difficult to argue how placing the Marbles in the wrong building with the wrong space, at the wrong height in the wrong light, and completely out of context is good conservation.

Maurice Blik, Vero Beach,

Cold and lonely
NONE of the letters in your recent debate mentioned the pang of grief felt through all Athens at the manner in which the Marbles were removed. The sincere and honest Dodwell was witness that Elgin himself did not bother to attend the removal process, relying instead on unskilled workmen who were paid a fixed sum to remove the friezes, which were 40ft above the ground. Consequently, many were smashed as they fell.

Adding insult to injury, it is recorded that the two ships which sank off Cape Malea, scattering their marble treasures among the dolphins, were both unseaworthy.

How many pilgrims, like myself, standing in the Attic sunlight have reflected on those cold, lonely, separated stones in the safe gloom of the British Museum?

Brendan Judge,

Unprofitable venture
A FEW months ago I spoke with the current Earl of Elgin on the subject of ownership as part of an undergraduate thesis at Edinburgh University. Though it would be easy for the current Earl to be biased, he presented to me expert knowledge and original artefacts detailing the so-called “heist”, balancing much of what I had previously read and heard.

Many readers will continue to describe the 7th Earl of Elgin as an art thief. They should consider the financial position in which the Bruce family were left. It is surely unusual for an art thief not to profit from his theft, let alone leave his family and himself in a poor financial state.

Several mishaps in transit led to the 7th Earl spending greater amounts of money than he had initially envisaged. If this was theft, it was theft from which the Earl did not profit.

A major issue reiterated over and over in this debate is the likelihood of effective preservation had the Marbles stayed in Athens. This we will never know, but the facts speak for themselves. At the British Museum, significantly more people will view the Parthenon Marbles, free of charge, in an excellent environment for many years to come.

Surely, the true value of art is reflected in the extent of its availability to all, not just its proximity to its place of origin.

Greg E. Geatons,

Do the right thing
ANY mention of the rightful return of the Parthenon sculptures to Athens brings out all the old patronising nationalist clichés.

The facts are clear. A foreign occupying power allowed another foreigner, Lord Elgin, literally to hack away the sculptures from the Parthenon, causing considerable damage. All legal and above board? Would we have accepted the legality of a foreign power occupying our country and allowing other foreigners to hack away at St Paul’s Cathedral? How the nationalists would have howled at that.

As for the hoary old chestnut about setting a precedent for the return of other artefacts, there have already been many instances of this. In this case, the Greek Government has solemnly promised to make no further requests. Quite the reverse. The Greeks have offered to send other valuable treasures to replace them.

All the polls in Britain show overwhelming support for the return of the sculptures. Following a Channel 4 television programme, 100,000 people phoned in with more than 90,000 supporting their return. Europeans, too, are in support. A declaration I submitted to the European Parliament calling for their return gained massive support, with MEPs from all 15 member states in favour.

Their return to Greece for the Olympic Games would be a wonderful gesture that would help to restore Britain’s present dismally low standing in the world. And it would be the right thing to do.

Alf Lomas (MEP, 1979-99),
London SE3

Another national treasure
BY ALL means send the Marbles back to Greece and the mummies back to Egypt (Eamonn O’Gorman, Debate, January 20), but Rolf Harris was born in Cardiff. He stays here!

Michael Matthews,

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1 Comment »

  1. Peter Aitch said,

    02.17.09 at 9:14 am

    Just as the seventh Earl of Elgin acquired the Parthenon Sculptures (‘the so-called ‘Elgin Marbles’) by purchase, it would perhaps be appropriate for Greece also to regain the sculptures by purchase.

    In the present financial crisis, the British government (and therefore the British Museum) might be prepared to repatriate the sculptures, if the price were high enough.

    As the European Union (except the UK) and the European court of justice are in favour of the repatriation of the Parthenon sculptures, perhaps they might foot the bill too.

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