June 14, 2012

Drawing comparisons – why long term loan is possible for the Lewis Chessmen, but not the Parthenon Marbles

Posted at 1:49 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

Some further coverage of the British Museum’s plans to return some of the Lewis Chessmen to the Island of Stornoway in 2014 on a long term loan.

I find this story interesting for a number of reasons, as there are certain comparisons that can be drawn with the case of the Parthenon Marbles (although there are of course many differences). Historically, when Greece has requested the return of the Elgin Marbles, the British Museum has fallen back on the anti-deaccessioning clauses in the 1963 British Museum Act, which the institution is legally obliged to abide by. Greece in response has on various occasions suggested that the reunification of the Marbles could still be possible in the form of a long term / or renewable loan, whereby the British Museum would still retain the ownership rights, but the sculptures would be in display in Athens.

It has been suggested by some at the British Museum that such an action could not constitute a loan – that a loan can only be for a short term & that anything else is ownership be another name (& therefore forbidden under the British Museum Act 1963).

There are certain other difficulties however in the case of the Marbles. Previously, while Minister of Culture, Antonis Samaras, has insisted that Greece would not accept a short term loan of the sculptures (three to four months is a typical inter-museum loan duration), as such a move would acknowledge & legitimise the museum’s ownership of the artefacts. On top of this, the British Museum counters that acceptance by the receiving party of the Museum’s ownership of the artefacts in question are one of their standard terms that must be agreed to before they proceed with any loans. Greece has once indicated that it would accept ownership rights by the British Museum, but the statement was later retracted as having been a mis-quotation.

Now, it seems that despite the fact that the British Museum claims that there is no such thing as a long term loan, some of the Lewis Chessmen are now going to return on one. They are for that matter, not the only artefacts that have avoided the terms of the British Museum Act by taking the route of a semi-permanent loan.

So it would appear that there is good evidence, in multiple cases, that something described as a long term loan is a possible means of returning artefacts.

Now back to the similarities between the Elgin Marbles & the Lewis Chessmen (& also the differences).

Firstly, the Lewis Chessmen (at least the ones being returned to Scotland) are currently housed in the British Museum, with others in Edinburgh.

Secondly, a new museum has been built, to display the artefacts, countering the argument that there is nowhere to house them safely if they were returned.

The differences however, are that the Scottish are (I presume) acknowledging that the British Museum owns the Lewis Chessmen & tat only a few of the chessmen are actually returning – this is a small percentage of the total – and there don’t appear to be any plans to expand this loan, whereas Greek requests have been for all of the Parthenon Marbles that are in the Museum.

The Lewis Chessmen are not such a clear cut case as that of the Parthenon Marbles – they are loose items, that were probably in the process of travelling when they ended up in Lewis – there is nothing known to connect them to the island, other than the fact that it is where they were rediscovered. Indeed, arguments have been made that they rightfully belong in Norway. The Parthenon Marbles on the other hand, are part of a larger whole – the frieze panels themselves are not only like the pages of a book split between two locations, but were designed to form part of a work of architecture (the Parthenon) which still survives. On top of this, there is no suggestion that the Chessmen ended up in the British Museum illegally, unlike the contested details of the firman used by Elgin to validate his ownership of the Parthenon Sculptures.

So – on the basis of the existing cases, what does it take to get the Parthenon Marbles back to Greece? Does it all come down to acknowledging ownership? This fact has been a stumbling block with previous attempts to negotiate with the the British Museum. Or if the ownership was acknowledged, would the British Museum then fall back on other reasons for blocking the return – with the end reason being that it just doesn’t want to return them? Perhaps we should look at it as two interwoven disputes here – one over ownership & one over the location for display / reunification of the sculptures. One possible way out, is of course to bring (& win) legal action in a British or international court, over the ownership of the Marbles.

The other point to bear in mind, is that these terms might only secure the return of a small portion of the sculptures – although the hope if that if the return of a small portion was successful & the terms of the loan agreement were met, then te return of the remainder would follow as a logical conclusion to the process.


At least six Lewis chessmen to return home after deal struck with British Musuem
Published on Wednesday 13 June 2012 22:09

SIX of the priceless world famous chessmen will feature in the permanent displays at the new Museum and Archive at Lews Castle when it opens in 2014 after a £13.5m revamp.

The chessmen will be on “permanent loan” to the new museum

Previously Western Isles MP Mr MacNeil has demanded the “repatriation” of the British Museum’s 82 priceless Viking chess pieces back to Scotland. Another 11 are in the hands of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Prior to that former culture minister Linda Fabiani was sent to London to view the chessmen and make the public case for their return.

But museum chiefs said moving the chessmen back to Scotland was impossible, since it would open a Pandora’s box for the return of artefacts.

Unlike some of the British Museum’s controversial artefacts such as the Elgin marbles, the chessmen were not plundered but bought for 80 guineas from an Edinburgh dealer who himself had paid £30 for them.

The types of pieces have not yet been revealed.

The loan agreement has resulted from a formal partnership between Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles Council) and the British Museum.

The new gallery space will also be a partnership gallery with the British Museum.

Last year, a touring exhibition of 29 of the pieces saw more than 120,000 people flock to see the priceless artefacts in Scotland.

In total 90 pieces were discovered beneath a sand dune near Uig – and are the most expensive and famous chess pieces in the world.

Some experts believe the intricately carved pieces to be of Scandinavian origin – others that they could have been made in Scotland by a master craftsman influenced by Viking art.

Most historians believe they were probably made in Norway in around 1200AD, and were originally bound for Ireland.

Lewis was once part of the Norse Kingdom of Mann and the Isles between 1079 and 1266.

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  1. Selby Whittingham said,

    06.14.12 at 8:50 pm

    Museums are not notable for their consistency. As regards long-term loans, the National Gallery lent paintings from the Turner Bequest from 1884 in some cases down to 1948. Then they “lent” most of the Turner Bequest to the Tate in 1910, when in effect that was a transfer, something not contemplated by the 1883 National Loan Act. In the 1920s, when Ramsay Macdonald was Prime Minister, other Turners were lent to 10 Downing Street, though it was later pointed out that there was no statutory authority to do mthis until the 1954 National Gallery and Tate Gallery Act. The museums and state can be very flexible when it chooses to be.

  2. Matthew said,

    06.15.12 at 7:50 am

    Thanks for this information – very interesting, as I wasn’t aware of any of the detail of this before.

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