A high stakes marble game
Here we go again. The debate over the Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum – should they, shouldn’t they be sent back to Greece, where a gleaming purpose-built museum overlooks the Acropolis from where the sculptures were torn down by Lord Elgin in 1801 to 1805 awaits them – seems to go on forever.
It was in the 1980s that Melina Mercouri, then Greek Minister of Culture, launched a passionate campaign for their return; she never stopped trying until her death in 1994. An official Greek request to the British parliament was refused – but has remained open ever since. And over a decade ago, my then colleague Peter Aspden, himself half-Greek and an avid returnee, laid out in this article a very thoughtful practical plan that included loan and share agreements, and a face-saving ownership structure. . It could have saved a lot of trouble – but some people just won’t listen, right?
This time around, the issue has been reignited by a back-and-forth between Jonathan Williams, Deputy Director of the British Museum, after he made a very cautious statement about a possible new ‘cultural exchange’ deal regarding the Parthenon sculptures. , and Professor Nikolaos Stampolidis, director of the Acropolis Museum. The answer of the latter was much more muscular, bringing the debate to global proportions: “The question of sculptures is not bilateral, it is a question of international, Western culture, not only European but also. . . of all democracies,” Stampolidis said.
There are marble sculptures of the Parthenon in many places – the Louvre, the Vatican, the museums of Copenhagen, Vienna and Munich – but it’s the loot from the British Museum that matters most. Not just in terms of quantity, but for the sheer immorality and arrogance of their looting.
In each of the multiple restitution and repatriation cases now so common around the world, this aspect – how it happened – gives heavy weight to the rights and wrongs involved. But these cases are sometimes fiendishly complicated, tying up lawyers for years.
When it comes to the legal, rather than emotional or moral, aspects of restitution claims, antiques and antiques are often simpler. And the Parthenon marbles are probably the clearest case of all: they answer all the test questions. We know where they were originally, when and how they were removed. There is no gap in the chain of ownership to cast doubt. And we know that if (I should say when) they are returned, they will be beautifully cared for.
It’s not always that simple. There are items that don’t really have a safe place of origin, maker, or original owner. Some restitution claims refer to a site of “modern discovery”: where they were unearthed, purchased or even stolen, rather than where they were created. These artifacts in limbo can present the biggest problems for museum staff facing claims.
Yet despite all the resistance from museums, despite the expense and hardship, the tears, the turmoil and the wars of words, restitution has moved forward at a fairly rapid pace in recent years.
In the United States last year, an ancient Gilgamesh tablet was returned to Iraq, more than 100 artifacts were returned to Pakistan, and Ethiopia received important pieces looted in the 1860s by British troops. These coins and many more like them were salvaged by officials after they were discovered to be traded in the bustling but often murky antiques market, the proceeds of theft, modern looting or unscrupulous dealings.
Germany did well, returning objects to its former colonial territories in present-day Namibia and announcing the return of its Beninese bronzes; the Netherlands and Belgium also made a series of good-hearted gestures. And the French Senate in 2020 voted for the return of 27 important cultural objects to Benin and Senegal.
It all sounds very fair, appropriate and optimistic. But such artifacts, precious as they are, have meaning far beyond themselves, as Alexander Herman pointed out in his recent book Restitution: the return of cultural artifacts.
When French President Emmanuel Macron made his dramatic declaration in Burkina Faso in 2017 – a sweeping promise to return all African artworks in French museums that have been illegally acquired – he had more than art and antiques in mind. It deployed a cultural soft power in a rather obvious way. Righting past wrongs, yes. But also to use restitution as a means of reaffirming the French-speaking Africa of his country, of claiming a clean break with the colonial past, of forging new economic and diplomatic ties on the basis of goodwill. As Herman puts it: “The goal of expanding France’s spheres of influence is well served by engaging with African countries around issues of restitution.
Herman also talks about China. Often through the market rather than through official repatriation requests, China (and its millionaire elite) regularly recovers art and cultural objects taken by foreign invaders and adventurers. However, restitution wars also work through other channels.
According to Herman, “The impressive new museum in Dakar, Senegal, which now holds returned material from France? Paid with 35 million euros from China. . . And it should be added that the port of Dakar represents an essential hub for deep-sea transport at the western tip of the continent.
Moreover, Chinese President Xi Jinping got into the Parthenon Marbles debate, siding firmly with the Returner cause during his visit to Greece in 2019. A diplomatically shrewd move, Herman says : it’s not a bad idea to be nice to the Greeks on a cultural issue “when the Chinese-owned port of Piraeus is such a vital linchpin of China’s trade with Europe”.
This particular game of marbles, it seems, has unwritten rules. Today’s squabbles over pieces of stone or metal can have dire implications for the future.
Jan Dalley is the artistic editor of the FT
FT Weekend Festival, London
Save the date of Saturday September 3 to listen Jan Dalley and over 100 authors, scientists, politicians, chefs, artists and journalists at Kenwood House Gardens, London. Choose from 10 tents filled with ideas and inspiration and a range of perspectives, featuring everything from debates to tastings, performances and more. Book your pass at ft.com/ftwf
Check out our latest stories first – follow @ftweekend on Twitter