Last week, Ethics Alarms confidently presented the ethics verdict that it was high time—more than high time, in fact—for the British Museum to finally return the so-called “Elgin Marbles” to Greece. As the priceless art was literally ripped off the Parthenon, I didn’t think the question justified an ethics quiz. I still am unconvinced by the arguments that the Brits should hold on to their ill-gotten gains, but I am the grandson of a Spartan, after all. There were several excellent comments asserting ethical grounds for the British position; this one was outstanding.
Here is P.M.Lawrence’s epic tutorial, rebuttal, and Comment of the Day on the post, “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?
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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.
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