My mother stole a piece of the Parthenon. She was Greek, my father and she were visiting Athens, and when no one was looking (including my father) she scooped up a 1 x 8 inch chuck of white marble by the ruins and smuggled it home, where she displayed it on her fireplace mantle. My sister and I were horrified when we learned what the piece was, and plotted various ways to have it returned without getting our aged mother prosecuted. When they moved from Arlington, Mass. to Arlington, Va, the item just vanished, or so Mom said. (We didn’t believe her.) It was never seen again.
I think about this family scandal whenever I think of the seemingly endless dispute over the Elgin Marbles.
In the early 1800s, Lord Elgin, a British aristocrat, shipped to England treasures of Greek antiquity that he had strip-mined from Greece, including the carved frieze panels that had decorated the Parthenon. Supposedly this was done with the permission of Turkey, which was then ruling Greece, which is like your home invaders giving neighbors permission to take the art off your walls. The “Elgin Marbles” were sold to the British government and became among the most valued artifacts in the collection of the British Museum in London. As my mother’s son, I know they were among my top three favorite exhibits when I first visited, along with the Rosetta Stone and Paul McCartney’s handwritten draft of the lyrics for “Yesterday.”
Well, Greece has been asking for the Elgin Marbles back for over two centuries now, and if the museum has a leg to stand on in keeping them, it pretty much comes down to that hoary (and not exactly true) line, “possession is 9/10s of the law.” However, recent decades have seen a cultural shift as Western colonization and imperialism have acquired a bad reputation. Many museums are returning such looted treasures to where they were created and, I believe, belong. Why, then, haven’t the Elgin Marbles been sent back to Greece as its government demands, urges, and begs?
Because they are really, really spectacular, famous, priceless, and the British Museum doesn’t want to lose them. No matter what the rhetoric is, it’s that simple. The British say the marbles were legally acquired—riiiight-— and are best shown alongside other artifacts in a “universal museum” where they can be part of a comprehensive overview of history, culture and civilization.
In other words, they have no good argument. Just “We got em, you don’t, so there. Deal with it.”
In ongoing secret talks, the reports are that Greece has asked the British Museum to return all of the frieze in its possession, about 250 feet of the carved marble that was wrapped around the Parthenon. Once returned, those panels would stay in Greece for at least 20 years before being loaned out, reunited with parts of the frieze already on display in the Acropolis Museum in Athens.In return for the frieze, Greek museums would supply the British Museum with a rotating selection of other artifacts, some of which have never been seen outside of Greece.
Sold! That’s a generous deal with a thief, and the offer should be accepted immediately. However, the British Museum wants to return just a small portion of the frieze, and only as as a short-term loan. Then, once Greece returned those artifacts, others would be sent to Athens to replace them. The museum generously suggests that number of artifacts sent to Greece would increase over time “to reflect growing trust between the two sides.”
The Brits have a lot of gall making that argument. “Growing trust”? Greece has no reason to trust the British Museum, and the museum has no just cause not to trust the country who stolen property it benefited from all these years.
Now here is the legal rationalization: the British Museum’s says that it cannot offer more, even if it wanted to, because under British law, the museum cannot remove items from its collection unless they are “unfit to be retained,” Well, they aren’t fit: they are stolen goods. The museum persists in claiming that Lord Elgin acquired the artifacts legally. It is using a dubious interpretation of the law to justify what it knows is unethical and wrong. Their position resembles that of the museums and private collectors who argued that they should be allowed to keep art masterpieces stolen by the Nazis.
I think the British Museum knows it is in the wrong. The Golden Rule must be making a lot of noise in the heads of the negotiators.
The Parthenon is the very symbol of ancient Greece. It’s time, past time, long past time, for the Elgin Marbles to come home.