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Can Russia be trusted to return Parthenon sculpture to Britain?

This post continues my thematic reproduction of articles [1] on the recent loan of a Parthenon sculpture to the Hermitage in St Petersburg by the British Museum.

The gist of these three articles is whether or not Putin’s Russia can be trusted to return the sculpture to Britain. Beyond that starting point though, the argument can follow various possible routes.

A lot of the reasoning here is directed at Russia rather than the Hermitage – however, in many cases, if a country wants to over-ride the wishes of its museums, it can do so fairly easily.

There are various other possible arguments that have not been put forward in these articles. One possible line of thinking is that Russia might return the sculpture to Greece – in order to gain an ally in the EU. The two countries have in common their heritage of Orthodox Christianity, but that is about as far as it goes. If Greece was to push for, or accept such an offer, it might well jeopardise their future bids to retrieve the remainder of the sculptures in the British Museum, so would not necessarily be in their interest.

Putin has in the past displayed clear support for the reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures in Athens, stating that “The Greeks are trying to bring back what belongs not only to them but to all humanity. This shows that your efforts are to your [the Greeks] credit and we [the Russians] will support you in this.“. He also noted that “various conquerors had attempted to remove and appropriate parts of the Parthenon” which was “one of the most outstanding monuments of humanity

I have to say though, that past experience with some of the news sources involved here leads me to doubt the likelihood of some of these stories actually turning out to be any more than just speculation.

On a separate note, it is disappointing (but not surprising) to see that Neil MacGregor continues to make the assertion that Greece has never asked for a loan of the sculptures – something that has already been proved incorrect [2] by this post I made a few days ago.

It is also interesting to see that the Director of the Hermitage, Mikhail Piotrovskiy, describes the loan as an important artistic and political gesture. This directly contradicts what the British Museum told me on twitter – that “Being independent of government, we work directly with museums so that dialogues can develop free from political considerations“. So is what they are doing a political gesture or not? I think most would argue that whether or not it is the intention to deny political involvement, this doesn’t necessarily make the gesture apolitical.

Visitors look at a sculpture from the Parthenon marbles at the Hermitage in St Petersburg, Russia [3]

Visitors look at a sculpture from the Parthenon marbles at the Hermitage in St Petersburg, Russia

Daily Mail [4]

Fears raised that Elgin Marbles sculpture sent to Russia ‘won’t be sent back’ – as British Museum claims Greece has never formally asked for them to be returned
By Jenny Awford for MailOnline
Published: 11:49, 6 December 2014 | Updated: 15:32, 6 December 2014

Fears are growing for the safety of part of the Elgin marbles loaned to Russia, as British museum trustees admitted they were worried the sculpture might not come back.

The unveiling of the headless statue of Greek river-god Ilissos at the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg yesterday prompted a furious diplomatic row with Greece.

But Dr Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, responded by claiming the Greek authorities had never formally asked for the sculptures to be returned, let alone requested to borrow them.

The choice of Russia as the first recipient of an Elgin statue sparked further controversy given tensions between the Kremlin and the West over Ukraine and the Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash.

Patience Wheatcroft, one of the British Museum’s trustees, admitted that when the board discussed the loan some were concerned the piece might not come back.

‘There is always a risk that someone will do something untoward. But we decided that it was a very unlikely event and that there would be sufficient pressure to ensure that the object was returned. It was a unanimous decision and we were absolutely united,’ she told The Telegraph.

The statue’s unexpected move from the British Museum came after a journey cloaked in secrecy for security and to ensure maximum impact.

Maurice Davies, partner at the Museum Consultancy and former head of policy at the UK’s Museum Association said ‘it was a very bold risk’.

He warned that the decision could ‘easily backfire’ because of the worsening relations between Russia and the West.

But he said it also showed the possibility of cultural co-operation and shows there are ‘alternatives to war and national power’.

Prime Minister David Cameron expressed confidence over the sculpture’s future amid fears that Number 10’s frosty diplomatic relations with Vladimir Putin could impact its return.

He said there was ‘trust’ and a ‘working relationship’ between the museums involved.

Sir Richard Lambert, Chairman of The Trustees of the British Museum, said the loan was only approved 16 days ago as they wanted to ‘leave room for flexibility if the political relationship between Europe and Russia changed’.

The Prime Minister of Greece, Antonis Samaras, once again accused Britain of ‘looting’ and said the decision to lend the statue to Russia ‘provokes the Greek people’.

But Dr MacGregor from the British Museum pointed out that Greece has never actually asked for them back.

‘The Greek claim to the Marbles is a political question,’ he said. ‘What’s clear is that the Greek position on the sculpture is the government’s. It’s not a position that comes out of an academic or conservation issue,’ he told The Times.

‘The Greek government has never asked the trustees of the British Museum for the return [of the Marbles]. It’s always been done through the media or through someone else.’ It had also ‘never asked to borrow’ them.’

The 2,500-year-old sculptures were removed from the Parthenon in Athens by Lord Elgin in the 19th century.

Since the late actress-turned-politician Melina Mercouri launched the restitution campaign in the 1980s, numerous attempts to win back the Marbles have failed.

Leading state archaeologists and culture ministry officials asked to borrow the Marbles before the 2004 Athens Olympics, for the duration of the Games.

In exchange Britain was offered its pick of 32,000 statues and vases dating back to the 5th century BC, and co-operation with the Acropolis Museum, but the offer was rejected.

Officials in Athens say they were offered permanent loan in exchange for complete resignation of ownership rights to the Marbles. The proposition was discussed but no deal was ever reached.

This year Athens hired lawyer Amal Clooney for a legal fight and she said Greece had ‘just cause’ for the return of the marbles.

Daily Express [5]

EXCLUSIVE: Legal bid ‘could halt Elgin statue’s return’ to Britain
BRITAIN could face legal action in Russia to halt the return of one of the Elgin Marbles on loan to the Hermitage museum in St Petersburg, it is feared.
Published: 00:01, Sun, December 7, 2014
By Marco Giannangeli

Despite a pledge by David Cameron that the statue of Ilisos would be shipped back to the British Museum after the controversial show, at least one Russian political party plans to challenge ownership.

Greece claims Lord Elgin looted the marbles from the Parthenon in Athens in the early 19th century, and has long campaigned for their return.

It is thought the ultranationalist group will seek an injunction preventing the statue’s export back to the British Museum on January 18 as part of a bid to embarrass the West over opposition to the Russian invasion in Ukraine.

If successful, it would embarrass the Kremlin too.

The loan is believed to be part of a bid by the Foreign Office to hand isolated Russian leader Vladimir Putin “an olive branch”.

It follows accusations by Geoffrey Robertson QC, who with Amal Clooney is advising Greece on the marbles, that British Museum trustees were “giving President Putin a propaganda windfall at the very time sanctions are beginning to bite in order to deter him from a war that is causing hundreds of deaths in Ukraine”.

President Putin was expected to make a high-profile visit to the remarkable exhibit before Christmas.

Last night a senior Moscow legal source confirmed at least one party was considering “mounting a legal challenge to make a political point”.

He refused to name the party.

Despite vocal protests by the Greek government against the loan, it has said it will not demand that Russia returns the statue.

Instead, Athens will continue to push its case against Britain through Unesco.

On Friday, Greek Prime Minster Antonis Samaras branded the decision to loan one of the Elgin Marbles to Russia “an affront” to the Greek people.

He added that the controversial loan to Russia invalidated Britain’s past claim that the precious artefacts were too fragile to be moved.

But last night, Mikhail Piotrovskiy, director of the State Hermitage museum, dismissed Greek outrage.

“This is a most important artistic and political gesture,” he said, at a meeting of the Union of Russian Museums.

The risk of the statue not being returned was always a real fear, with British Museum trustee Patience Wheatcroft admitting that board members were concerned the piece might never come back when the loan was first discussed.

“There is always a risk that someone will do something untoward,” she said, “but we decided it was a very unlikely event and that there would be sufficient pressure to ensure that the object was returned.”

Daily Telegraph [6]

We will get the Elgin Marbles back, David Cameron suggests
Prime Minister indicates ‘trust’ between the two institutions involved will ensure artwork’s safe return after controversial loan move
By Ben Riley-Smith, Political Correspondent
1:19PM GMT 05 Dec 2014

David Cameron has expressed confidence that one of the Elgin marbles controversially loaned to a Russian museum will be returned to Britain.

The Prime Minister said the two museums involved shared “trust” and a “working relationship” amid fears that Number 10’s frosty diplomatic relations with Vladimir Putin could impact its return.

Mr Cameron also defended the decision to allow the artwork to leave Britain for the first time by saying the Russian exhibition it will appear in should be “really interesting”.

It comes as the unexpected move threatens to escalate into a diplomatic incident given Greece’s long-held desire to see the works returned to Athens.

Eddie O’Hara, the chairman of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, said he was “incensed” by the decision, adding: “It’s at best insensitive and at worst, frankly provocative.”

The headless statue of a Greek river-god will be unveiled in the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg on Friday as part of the celebrations for the institution’s 250th anniversary.

The Prime Minster’s official spokesman said the decision was taken by the British museum’s trustees, adding there had been not yet been any contact from the Greek government.

Asked what Mr Cameron’s reaction had been, the spokesman said: “We recognise that this will be a really interesting exhibition for the people of Russia.”

Discussing whether the artwork will ever return given Britain’s frosty diplomatic relations with Vladimir Putin, the spokesman said: “I think actually what you see in the relationship the British museum have with the Hermitage is the trust between the two museums and the kind of working relationship between the two of them.”

Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, told The Times: “The politics of both museums have been that the more chilly the politics between governments the more important the relationship between museums.”