On Art

The Marbles won’t be lost

Is this the end of the Elgin Marbles debate?

Shortly after the prime minister signed the EU withdrawal agreement and the government and the EU officially commenced their pas de deux over the divorce terms, the EU added a clause to a draft of its negotiating mandate. It stated the British government should “address issues relating to the return or restitution of unlawfully removed cultural objects to their countries of origin”. Some people saw this as referring to the international trade in illicit antiquities. Most, however, saw it as a direct reference to the Elgin Marbles. As such, this shot across the bows was clearly intended to tie the return of the marbles to Greece tightly to the Brexit negotiations.

The British Museum’s title to the marbles and the merits of Greece’s claim have red heated and often intemperate discussions for two centuries. Lord Byron was one of the early culture warriors, famously writing,

Dull is the eye that will not weep to see

Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed

By British hands

The EU gambit can be seen as opening another front in this war of words that goes back to 1812 when the Earl of Elgin, in Athens as ambassador to the Ottoman Sultan Selim III, petitioned the authorities for the right to remove items from the Acropolis. He received two official firmans, one authorising the taking of stones “with old inscriptions and figures” and the second approving their shipping to Britain. The marbles and their transportation ended up costing Elgin £70,000. When, after a parliamentary inquiry and lengthy negotiations, they were bought for the nation in 1816 and passed to the British Museum, he received just £35,000.

Both the authenticity of the firmans and the morality of Elgin’s actions have long been debated, but there is no dispute that the Ottomans were then the legitimate authority in the region, having first occupied Athens in 1458 (Greece did not become a sovereign state until 1832) and that the vast sum paid by Elgin was not for broken building materials. Other complications include the fact that Elgin saved many of the marbles. e Parthenon had been badly damaged in 1687 when the Turks, at war with Venice, used it as a gunpowder store. An artillery shell ignited the magazine and brought down much of the temple, destroying numerous sculptures and leaving others open to looting.

Today, regardless of what the EU and supporters of the marbles’ return might suggest, things are rather more clear-cut. The British Museum is unwavering in affirming its legal right to the marbles, asserting unequivocally: “The Trustees have a legal and moral responsibility to preserve and maintain all the collections in their care and to make them accessible to world audiences.” The BM insists its collection is a “unique resource for the world” intended to “allow a global public to examine cultural identities and explore the complex network of interconnected human cultures”. Six million visitors did so in 2018-2019. Furthermore, “the Parthenon sculptures are a vital element in this interconnected world collection. They’re a part of the world’s shared heritage and transcend political boundaries.” The museum notes too the often overlooked fact that other Parthenon marbles are held in at least six other non-Greek collections, including the Louvre, the Vatican and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

Here is the problem for the Johnson government should it ever be minded to use the marbles as a bargaining chip: it can’t, it doesn’t own them. If the BM trustees were to hand them over they would be in breach of their legal duties. at board of trustees comprises up to 25 members, one of whom is appointed by the Queen, 15 by the prime minister, ve by the trustees themselves, and four based on the nominations of the Royal Academy, the British Academy, the Society of Antiquaries of London, and the Royal Society. Current members include Grayson Perry and the Nobel-winning geneticist Sir Paul Nurse.

While the board could feasibly be loaded with purely political appointees, the trustees must also “act with integrity, transparency and impartiality” in uphold- ing “the national and international role of the Museum” and “the conservation, enrichment and care of the Collection”. Furthermore, they must commit to the seven “Nolan principles” of public life, which state that they “must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias”, all of which mitigate against arm-twisting.

Should the government seek to deaccession the marbles by rewriting the British Museum Act of 1963 the result would be to put at risk any number of works in public collections that lack copper-bottomed provenances. So, unless the post-Brexit world suddenly lurches off its axis, this particular game of marbles will remain in stalemate.

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