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Why all restitution cases should be treated on their own unique merits

The initial history of the Elgin Marbles in this article is over-charitable to Lord Elgin (who had for instance never visited Athens at the time that he instructed the removal of the sculptures from the Parthenon to start). The key point to consider though is that no precedent would necessarily be set by the reunification of the surviving Parthenon Sculptures in Athens. It has long been understood that in cases such as this, each case is assessed on its own strengths & weaknesses. No two restitution cases are identical. Not only do you have to consider how artefacts were acquired, but also the significance of the artefacts, their uniqueness, what they represent etc before any decision can be made. In the case of the Parthenon Marbles, there is a strong case, not least because they are fragmented parts of a whole. If the pages of a book [1] were spread randomly between different locations, few would be able to argue that this was the best way that the book could be displayed.

Further to the whole argument of precedent though (which has been gone over many times [2] by many people [3]), surely doing an arguably right act now should not be stopped because you fear that doing what is morally right once may mean that you are then encouraged to make similar commitments again in the future?

Dawn.com (Pakistan) [4]

The debate over the Elgin marbles
By Irfan Husain
Wednesday, 22 Jul, 2009 | 08:48 AM PST

Ever since the end of the colonial era, countries whose cultural heritage was looted by European powers have been demanding the return of their treasures. And yet decades later, these priceless objects continue to fill the display areas of hundreds of museums, private collections and auction houses in the West.

Perhaps the longest outstanding claim has been for the return of the Elgin marbles from the British Museum to their home in Greece. This stunning collection was removed from its resting place in the Parthenon in Athens. Built 2,500 years ago on the Acropolis as a temple to honour the goddess Athena, the Parthenon served as a church for another thousand years before being converted into a mosque by the conquering Ottoman Turks who turned Greece into a province of their far-flung empire. It then fell into disuse and was a dilapidated ruin when Lord Elgin arrived in Constantinople as the British ambassador in the late 18th century.

During his travels, he was amazed and captivated by the marble frieze at the Parthenon, and requested the Turkish emperor to allow him to remove some of the sculptures and take them to Britain with him. In 1801, duly armed with a royal firman, he organised a team of workers to clamber up the front of the temple and rip out many of the marble masterpieces.

These pieces entranced his guests at his English home until he went bankrupt. He then petitioned the government to buy the collection, which then went to the British Museum where they can be viewed in a special gallery to this day.

Since Greece gained its independence from Turkey nearly a century ago, successive governments have been clamouring for the return of the Elgin marbles as they have come to be called. Thus far, the stock response of the British government has been that as Greece lacked the facilities to display the Parthenon frieze and other sculptures, the collection was much better viewed in the British Museum.

But last month, the Greeks blew a hole in this argument by opening the stunning new Acropolis Museum. Built at a cost of $200 million, and designed by a Swiss architect, the museum has a vast gallery for the Parthenon frieze. Here, the remaining marbles have been displayed with gaps clearly indicating the items that were literally ripped off by Lord Elgin. After the museum was opened, the Greeks renewed their demand for the return of the collection.

On its website, the British Museum has argued that the marbles should continue to stay in London because they are accessible to visitors from around the world, and are a part of humanity’s cultural heritage. The Museum insists that its remit is to preserve and display objects of artistic and historic interest from across the globe. The site also points out that Lord Elgin removed the pieces legally. Clearly, this is a dispute that won’t be settled in a hurry, even though many in England argue that the marbles should be returned.

One problem with such a step would be that a precedent would be set, and this would open the floodgates to a host of similar claims. Recently, China objected to the sale of an ancient bronze sculpture on the grounds that it had been illegally removed from its soil. More relevant to us is the demand made in the Seventies for the return of the Koh-i-Noor diamond to the subcontinent.

In response to these and other similar claims, most Western governments have responded by pointing out that most developing countries do not have the resources to preserve and display objects of historical and artistic interest. Although this paternalistic attitude is irritating, it does have a germ of truth.

We in Pakistan are all too aware of how vulnerable archaeological objects are to greed and intolerance. During their recent occupation of Swat, the Taliban destroyed several lovely Buddhist rock carvings. I shudder to think of what they did to the Swat Museum. Other, older, carvings in the Northern Areas have been similarly desecrated. Barely a decade ago, the Taliban in Afghanistan blew up the giant Bamyan Buddhas, drawing protests and revulsion from around the world.

The other factor that strengthens Western arguments against the return of stolen treasures is the fact that few ex-colonies devote much money to the preservation and display of their cultural heritage. Often impoverished, they accord culture a very low priority when it comes to allocating funds. When I was working in the culture ministry 20 years ago, I was constantly frustrated by the fact that we barely received enough money for salaries and utilities for our archaeology department.

Another problem lies in the vulnerability of our archaeological sites. Armed robbers have decimated remotely located and poorly-guarded treasure-troves. Often retained by foreign collectors, these thieves have denuded entire sites the government cannot protect. And then there have often been dark rumours of items being stolen from our museums and replaced with copies. Furthermore, we do not have the museum space to display all the treasures held in the archaeology department’s stores. In passing, I wonder when our museum reserves were last audited.

However, even if the West does agree to return the looted treasures in its museums, the question arises whom to return them to. Should the Koh-i-Noor go to India, or can Pakistan claim that it is a successor to Mughal India? If the Elgin marbles were to leave the British Museum, can Turkey lodge a claim as the modern republic succeeded the Ottomans?

The question of original ownership was highlighted by Robert Ingle in a recent letter to the Economist:

‘…Athens was the force behind the Delian League of Greek city-states in the 5th century BC, which was founded to provide money for a common defence against Persia. The funds raised, however, did not go towards defence, but were used by the Athenians to pay for expensive building projects on the Acropolis, including the Parthenon… The classical Athenians extorted money to craft what have become known as the Elgin marbles; now their descendants want the works returned to them. I propose instead that the marbles be returned to the descendants of the people who helped to pay for them in the first place, and who now live in the Delian League’s former cities along the eastern Aegean [in Turkey]’.

Although tongue-in-cheek, this letter does demonstrate the legal and moral difficulties involved in returning looted treasures.