In The Dispute Over The Fate Of The Elgin Marbles, It Is Time For The Brits To Choose Ethics Over Law

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.

19 thoughts on “In The Dispute Over The Fate Of The Elgin Marbles, It Is Time For The Brits To Choose Ethics Over Law

  1. The only reason to keep them would be if returning them to the country of origin would endanger the artifacts (which would apply for some other items in their collection). Obviously his is not the case with the frieze, so they should just get over it.

    It also reminds me of Montezuma’s headdress, and all the theories that range from being a gift from the Tlatoani himself to it being a fake. That one is a much more interesting case to discuss.

  2. I’m not sure I like the idea of shipping artifacts back to wherever. The rightful owners are often long gone or impossible to find, and I don’t like the idea of breaking up museum collections especially ones that are large draws or popular.

    Greece and the Parthenon got a raw deal in the Mediterranean wars of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, in fact it is my understanding that the Turks used the building as an arsenal during one of their many clashes with the then independent state of Venice. The Venetian fleet fired upon Athens during one of the battles, a stray shell hit the Parthenon, ignited the munitions therein, and badly damaged the building.

    Although the days of Turkey trying to conquer the Mediterranean ended with the failure of their assault on Malta and the destruction of their fleet off Lepanto, it would be two and a half centuries more before serious efforts were made to dislodge them from the Balkans, where they had remained even though their assault on Vienna had ended with the largest cavalry charge in history sweeping them away and ending their offensive power. Right after the Napoleonic wars the Serbians rose up and threw off the Ottoman yoke without outside help. The Greeks decided it was time to follow suit, and a lengthy revolution resulted in which many Western European nobles and adventurers participated, notably Lord Elgin and poet Lord Byron. The Western European governments, however, did not want this revolution, because their priority after the Napoleonic wars was the resumption of trade, not more conflict. Like it or not until the diplomatically inexpedient victory in the Gulf of Navarino led a French army to finally come and end things decisively, the Turks were the authority.

  3. This should maybe have been an Ethics Quiz.

    The resolution is not so clear cut to me.

    Things to consider:

    1. Just as you are skeptical of International War Crimes Tribunals, international theft between countries is similarly dubious.

    2. Greece’s history is so convoluted. Since the creation of the Frieze, it has been overrun by who? The Romans, Turks, Ottomans (?), Persian (?), Huns (?), others (?). “Legal” ownership is an opaque notion in this context.

    3. In such circumstances, I often think of the Virginia Battle Flag that was captured by Minnesota at Gettysburg. Governor Ventura (gag!) famously refused to return it to Virginia as it was a spoil of war. Is that the right response? Yes, No, and Maybe. Minnesota has a right to keep it; it should be returned to Virginia, the two states are no longer at odds, and it should be given to the Un tied States as a neutral third party that could appropriately preserve that artifact as one of national significance.

    -Jut

    • Well, I almost made it an Ethics Quiz, except that I had made up my mind about this long ago, and today’s Times article about the museum’s position ticked me off.

      Minnesota is obviously right to keep the flag.

      • Jack: “ Minnesota is obviously right to keep the flag.”

        I may agree. But, in this context, an argument should be offered in justification for: 1) Minnesota; 2) Virginia; 3) some United States Museum (arguably there should be a Museum of the Civil War, so that Americans understand that the Civil War (aka the War Between the States, the War of Northern Aggression, etc. was a war between patriots of differing visions that wisely “tried” to move past their differences amicably)).

        Good arguments could be made in favor of each of those three alternatives. I don’t know that “obviously” is an appropriate word here. And, there may not be a correct answer.

        -Jut

        • Flags captured in battles are the property of the victors. Has Texas seriously claimed that it should get the Alamo flag back from Mexico? I don’t see a flag as near the scale or symbolism of a national antiquity like the Parthenon. Even the Germans didn’t saw off the top of the Eiffel Tower and take it home, or sell it to the British Museum

  4. Come on, man. Give ’em back, England. The empire’s over. The sun has in fact set on the British Empire, right around the time you needed the U.S. to go all in on Lend Lease. You can make all sorts of digital versions of the marbles that will be even more impressive than the originals.

    Mrs. OB and I spent nine days in French Polynesia. Whew! The few French there strut around as if they own the place, because … they still do. And they evidently are holding on to Taheti and the rest of the islands because they are the only remnants of the French empire.

    I think it’s the same with the Brits and the E. Marbles. Assholes.

    • Not quite. Until the British leave Northern Ireland and pack up from Cyprus there will still be some of the Empire around. The Brits have no obligation to return these marbles, any more than they do to return the flags, jewels, and other valuables taken in battle from the various colonial nations. To do otherwise sets a bad precedent. BTW, the sarcophagus of St. Nicholas, who was for a time the most popular venerated saint in the Catholic Church, second only to the Virgin Mary, was for a time interred in Turkey when it was part of the Byzantine Empire. Italian sailors, thinking it wrong for a major Christian saint to be buried in what had become the land of the infidel, and perhaps fearing the tomb would be destroyed or desecrated by ISIS-type fanatics, stole him and brought him to Bari, Italy, where he lies in the cathedral to this day. Do they have to return him to a nation that will not appreciate him?

      • The old “We, the enlightened British, can better take care of cultural treasures better than can the swarthy [fill in the blanks]” is just not a great justification anymore, if it ever was.

        • That’s not the argument. In fact it’s a cheap race-based one. Are these marbles better served being in amuseum where they can be appreciated, or back at the site which is frequently in danger from anarchists and a precarious and nearly bankrupt government?

          • I doubt they’d be put back on the Parthenon. Some wealthy foundation or NGO would fund a proper facility to house the sculptures. Christ, the U.K. was down at the heel and almost went bankrupt in the ’70s and they could have been forced to fire sale all sorts of stuff. To hear the Anti-Brexiteers, the U.K. is on the brink of sinking into the Atlantic now that it’s cut itself off from all the benevolent suits in Brussels and Berlin and Paris.

      • Actually the British have never been accused of damaging the Sphinx’s nose. Usually the accused culprits are either Ottoman Turks or Napoleonic soldiers, shooting it off in a moment of idle vandalism. However, a painting dating back to 1737 by a Danish artist shows the nose already missing, so that’s probably not the case.

  5. 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…

    There is a little more to it than that:-

    – On the legal maxim of “nemo dat quod non habet”, of course the Turks couldn’t convey title. But they didn’t, they offered a quitclaim, as it were; they removed themselves from obstructing.

    – As regards any original owners, there simply weren’t any left. The last remaining ones were ended by rounds of persecution of pagans, centuries earlier.

    – As far as any generic claims of common heritage of western civilisation go, and those claims only go for want of better (there being no direct heirs), what better place to put the items than in a museum furthering that common heritage? Are the British somehow less heirs of that than are the Graeculi? Particularly considering how much safer the items were in that museum(those not taken have suffered horribly from war, corrosion, and what not). And, of course, the very word “museum” proclaims that furthering that common heritage.

    Now, none of that conveys title to the British Museum, but adverse possession in the years since does – adverse, in that no better claimant came forward. Just as today’s Greeks feel an understandable connection to these items, as they do to the Lions of St. Mark’s, so too do today’s British – and as today’s Venetians do to the Lions of St. Mark’s. They are as intertwined with the histories of each place as of the other.

    The Solomonic solution would be to sand blast the items to the condition of those not taken if any effort to transfer them were ever made. But I expect the Sir Humphreys will loudly assert ownership while underhandedly arranging a loan in name only with no means of foreclosing, just as they have with foundational documents that ought to have remained in British archives. That would satisfy none but the Sir Humphreys.

    Well, Greece has been asking for the Elgin Marbles back for over two centuries now …

    No. Greeks have. But two centuries ago Greece was, as Metternich accurately but misdirectingly said of Italy (and Churchill did of India), “not a country but a geographical expression, like the equator”. The misdirection consisted in distracting away from the idea that aimed to give rise to the reality; but to this day the “megalo idea” of Greece has not been realised. The closest it has come was perhaps a century ago, not two centuries ago. Even a rump nation of Greece did not come about until the 1830s.

    In other words, they have no good argument…

    You forget: they have as good an argument as any, and better than some from the tutelary role accreted over years, given that nobody has a good argument on any other grounds.

    … 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…

    What “thief”? You are asserting the point at issue. You also forget: there has been a growing British link with these items, as Venice has had with the Lions of St. Mark’s. It would be like offering to give a rotation of other babies to a family that had been given the wrong baby by a maternity hospital and only found out after nurturing the baby for years – and giving the first baby to a family that had not even given birth to it, but was only collaterally related! (This also refutes OB; a good fake is good enough? Then let those have that who will.)

    … 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.”

    Well, that’s the Sir Humphrey method. The end of that road is nobody happy but the Sir Humphreys. They were planning something like that for the Falkland Islands, only the Argentinian invasion thwarted that sell out.

    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.

    You are misreading it, and in precisely the ways that mean it will make nobody happy.

    When the Sir Humphrey say “growing trust”, they mean like kiting cheques. They can increase the quantum slowly and steadily, then slow and stop the music once things have moved imperceptibly. As for “the museum has no just cause not to trust the country who [typo?] stolen property it benefited from all these years”, of course it has. Leaving aside that same begging the question, the very fact that Greece sincerely believes it owns the items means that it is all too possible that Greece will pre-empt that sell out process, intended to shift the weight by degrees; that is precisely what happened to the sell out of the Falkland Islands, because Argentina sincerely believed the same. And that sincerity – which the Sir Humphreys do not appreciate – is why that process would not satisfy Britain or Greece: the former from losing the items, and the latter from having to pretend they were British, an unpalatable hypocrisy that the Sir Humphreys never comprehend as an obstacle.

    … 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…

    This is the same abuse of language that perhaps inadvertently misread the term “competent” in the Amistad matter. U.S. courts weren’t competent, not in the sense that they were not clever or skilled enough, but in the sense that they did not have the right remit etc. Even if it were absolutely proven that the items were stolen – and from those demanding them, to boot – the term “fit” relates to suitability for storage, exhibition, restoration, etc. under museum facilities. It in no way, shape or form relates to any Thunbergian “how dare you!” from the aggrieved – even if stemming from a justifiable grievance. So that is nugatory.

    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.

    Well, no, thus:-

    – My very existence as an arguer should show you that there is an opposing case.

    – No Sir Humphrey ever registered an ethical alarm. The negotiators are sinuously looking for a way to slip over a sell out. No doubt that holds of the Greek ones as well as the British, but I myself have only smelled the spoor of the latter (I have a family connection to the Falkland Islands).

    The Parthenon is the very symbol of ancient Greece. It’s time, past time, long past time, for the Elgin Marbles to come home.

    Then let ancient Greece come forth to claim its own, yea, even those that hated Athens, that sweated tribute for the Delian League or were never Greek save as slaves but dug silver out at Laurion for her. Let Malos have them as reparations from Athens, if any Maliot yet lives. And as for “home”, what home is this, that offers naught but burned brimstone to surround this frieze?

    P.S. England did not take them; Elgin was a Scot.

  6. Are they safe in England? Where are they most accessible to the portion of mankind that wish to see them? I have been to Greece a number of times and have yet been able to walk the Acropolis for sundry reasons. The last of which were anarchists in mob mode. Will the Greek government which is somewhat unstable and economically strapped allow free and full access to the marvelous masrbles?

  7. I am unconvinced wholly to either side yet. But the scoffing of the old laws by which England claims legitimate possession rings a bell in me. Yes, history is written by the victors, possession is 9/10 of the law, and the courts were carefully chosen to give the results wanted. But to dismiss their weight on the scales simply because western colonization and imperialism have developed a bad reputation, everyone knows that England shouldn’t have taken them and shouldn’t keep them, and that the Greeks feel really, really strongly that the situation is unfair is to undermine the rule of law in favor of a rule of emotion and popularity.

    Just as it is unfair to dismiss the icons of the past for holding to the rules of the past, is it not unfair to dismiss the legal decisions of the past merely because we know so much better now? Making too much of a habit of that would completely undermine the rule of law – and as you so frequently have pointed out, even bad laws and court decisions should be recognized and obeyed until they are overwritten.

    And even then, I think I’d be more inclined to trust the flawed impartiality of the old courts to the modern fecklessness of today’s.

    I’m leaning that, barring any new legal developments, true ownership is moot at this point. The pieces are both safe and accessible to the public where they are. Granted, having them on display AT the Parthenon would increase their historical value tremendously – but not if they were to become less available or secure in the process. Unless they can be moved to a place which is better for them as artifacts, they should stay where they are, I figure.

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