October 14, 2002

Greece wants Elgin Marbles returned for the 2004 Olympics

Posted at 2:07 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles

In 2004, all the world will be on Athens, for the Olympics there. The New Acropolis Museum is also due to be completed in the same year and in anticipation of this, Greece is stepping up requests for the return of the Parthenon sculptures from the British Museum.

Baton Rouge Advocate

Published on 10/12/02
Elgin marbles for Olympiad?

For almost 200 years, one of the world’s great art treasures has been preserved in the British Museum — despite sometimes vociferous protests from Greece that the Parthenon frieze should be restored to its rightful place on the Acropolis.

The controversy over the “Elgin marbles,” the bulk of the sculptures that once adorned the upper sections of the Parthenon, is getting new life because of Italy’s decision to send its small part of the frieze to Greece.

Inevitably, there will be pressure on the British government to return the bulk of the work. The statues in the frieze depict a variety of gods and goddesses in marble.

The bulk of the frieze was excavated by Lord Elgin in 1806 and sold to the British Museum in London in 1816, where they are on display.

“Excavated” is a neutral word. Some Greeks say stolen; backers of Elgin say the British nobleman saved the frieze from probable destruction in the war-torn region of the time.

The marbles had survived wars and looting, if barely, for 23 centuries before Elgin, according to partisans of artistic repatriation. Greece is hardly a war zone today.

At the same time, the British Museum bought the Elgin marbles fair and square, in 1816. That is a long time ago, suggesting some legitimacy of ownership — even for antiquities almost 2,500 years old.

A serious philosophical question arises about every great collection of artwork: At what point do national claims of ownership trump purchases in good faith? It is one thing to deal with outright looting; even today, some art work is being found that was stolen by Nazi Germany, and museums are restoring the works to rightful owners. But how long does that rule run?

The Greek government wants all the statues returned before the 2004 Olympics in Athens. The Greek culture minister, Evangelos Venizelos, has said that Greece would accept a long-term loan of the Elgin marbles from the British Museum.

The Italian piece, a fragment of the statue of the goddess Peitho, was purchased from the widow of a British diplomat around 1820. The Italian government proposes to present it to Greece under a 99-year loan, with the Greek government responding by the loan of some other piece of art.

The Greeks make a good case for the return of the Parthenon’s surviving — literally, crowning — glory. But the implications of the dispute for the world’s museums is a serious one.

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