The TimesOnline had an article last week by Ben Macintyre tying in the recent repatriations and criminal trials in Italy and Greece to the Parthenon Marbles (or the Elgin Marbles as they are often referred to). Here’s an excerpt:
The return to Greece of a spectacular Macedonian gold wreath from the 4th century BC may lead to the repatriation of several looted artefacts worth millions of pounds.
Court cases in Italy and Greece are increasing the pressure on museums around the world and could lead to widespread changes in the handling of ancient treasures.
The campaign to return stolen work to its country of origin has emboldened Costas Karamanlis, the Prime Minister of Greece, to predict that Britain will soon be forced to surrender the Elgin Marbles. Also at stake are hundreds of statues, bronzes, engravings and other artworks from museums in Europe, the US and Japan.
At the heart of this revolution is the landmark case of the funerary wreath, one of the most beautiful surviving examples of ancient craftsmanship, which was looted from Greece more than ten years ago. A delicate spray of gold leaves interwoven with coloured glass paste, the wreath was probably designed as a funeral gift and made soon after the death of Alexander the Great.
It was put on display in Greece for the first time this week after a long campaign to persuade the J. Paul Getty Museum, in California, to return it to its homeland.
Mr Karamanlis welcomed its return as evidence that Britain would soon be forced to relinquish the Elgin Marbles, which were acquired by the British diplomat Lord Elgin between 1801 and 1810 and are currently housed in the British Museum. Britain has argued that they are better preserved in London (continue reading).
These repatriations are an important step, and are an example of stronger action by both Greece and Italy. However, the Vatican is expected to announce that it will refuse to return some fragments of the Parthenon. Parts of the Parthenon are spread all over Europe, including London, Rome, Copenhagen, Berlin.
I was at the British Museum a few weeks ago, and I was reminded how impressive the sculptures still are, even though they are broken and decontextualized. It would be very exciting to see all of the sculptures collected in Athens for display. However, people all over Europe can view parts of them at present, and there is a value in that as well I suppose. In the end, I seriously doubt whether the British Museum will ever relinquish the marbles.
The case for their return seems much different from the gold wreath which the Getty just returned and from the trial of Marion True. The argument for their return is only ethical or moral, there is no legal claim to them which Greece could hope to assert.