December 13, 2008

The barrier to compromise over the Elgin Marbles

Posted at 1:38 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles

The Financial Times has published various letters in response to their earlier article on what is required for the Parthenon Marbles to be returned.

Financial Times

The real barrier to a compromise over Marbles
Published: December 6 2008 02:00 | Last updated: December 6 2008 02:00

From Prof John Kapranos Huntley.

Sir, It is refreshing to read a balanced commentary on the future of the Parthenon Marbles by someone who so clearly understands the conflicting feelings and aspirations that surround it (Peter Aspden, “A manifesto for the Marbles”, Life & Arts , November 29/30). A putative voice for reason and conciliation has been raised. What might drown it out is the underlying conflict over a matter the FT and its readership would hopefully go a long way to defend: property rights.

The Parthenon Marbles are not simply artefacts; they are fixtures attached to buildings on the Parthenon for more than 2,300 years until they were forcibly removed. They are not independent pieces of statuary or pottery to be crated around the “cultural” museums of the world.

More importantly, as fixtures, they belong to the buildings to which they were attached, unless it can be indisputably demonstrated that their removal was expressly agreed to by the owners of the buildings. Ownership to them could only be transferred on the strongest evidence that a right to remove them had been granted. That would normally require the sort of documentary evidence that does not seem to exist in a form that could sensibly be relied on in a court of law.

This is the real barrier to compromise. It is difficult to see how a government of the Hellenic republic could agree to a “loan” arrangement without also acceding to the British Museum’s ownership. Similarly, the British Museum has always defended its ownership of the Parthenon Marbles against all evidence to the contrary. In so doing, it has frequently relied on the prohibition in The British Museum Act of 1963 against disposal of property “vested” in its trustees. Despite the act of 1963, it is at the very least doubtful whether these fixtures ever “vested” in the British Museum.

Such disputes over ownership can be properly tested only in the courts. In 2005, the English High Court famously decided that the British Museum did not have the right to repatriate artefacts vested in its trustees; but that same case suggests that the British Museum does not have the right to retain, indeed would have the duty to return, artefacts that are not vested in its trustees.

Perhaps, with a view to settling this fundamental conflict in good time for the London Olympics, Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, could bring an action in the High Court to determine the question of ownership; and therefore whether the museum has the right to retain, or even perhaps the obligation to repatriate the Parthenon Marbles? That would at least clear the main obstacle to Peter Aspden’s enlightened suggestions.

John Kapranos Huntley,
Professor of Law (Retired),
Bearsden, East Dunbartonshire, Scotland

Financial Times

Time to resculpt
Published: December 13 2008 02:00 | Last updated: December 13 2008 02:00

From Miss Josephine Nendick.

Sir, With reference to Peter Aspden’s very interesting article “A manifesto for the Marbles” (Life & Arts, November 29/30) I would like to point out that while a percentage of every country’s patrimony ends up in other countries’ museums, the greater part of it remains in situ.

If the Greeks find it hard to bear, why don’t their sculptors resculpt the Marbles and reinstate them – unscathed by time – for all to see. Surely it’s the design that matters, not the stone.

Josephine Nendick,
St Martin de Villereglan, France

Financial Times

Wayland stands ready to resolve Marbles stand-off
Published: December 13 2008 02:00 | Last updated: December 13 2008 02:00

From Mr Paul Drexler.

Sir, Peter Aspden’s suggestion to share the Parthenon Marbles between London and Athens is eminently balanced and fair (“A manifesto for the Marbles,” Life & Arts, November 29/30). It is, however, completely alien to the mindset of the Athenian world portrayed in the sculptures.

The ancient Greeks preferred clarity, boldness, and decisive action to any muddled sense of British fairness. Here is my bold suggestion. The US probably has more citizens of Greek descent than Greece; why not give us the Marbles?

My town of Wayland, Massachusetts, now building a new shopping mall in which they might be prominently displayed, stands ready to relieve Britain of this long-standing burden.

Paul Drexler,
Wayland, MA, US

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