Greece Not Interested in Sharing the Marbles

Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum

Greek Culture Minister Antonis Samaras has said his nation is not interested in working out a loan arrangement for the Parthenon Marbles. 

I can certainly understand that point of view, but at some point don’t we need to move beyond the question of whether that taking in 1801-2 was wrongful; and start asking what is best for the marbles and those who want to learn from them today?  I don’t want to belabor the point, but isn’t the fact that the marbles are still on display at the British Museum a pretty strong indication that their removal was legal, or if not, not subject to current judicial scrutiny?  We can argue about whether their continued display in London is ethical, but not I do not think a legal question any longer. 

From the BBC:

The government, as any other Greek government would have done in its place, is obliged to turn down the offer,” Mr Samaras said, in a statement. 
“This is because accepting it would legalise the snatching of the Marbles and the monument’s carving-up 207 years ago.” 
He added that he was prepared to discuss lending Greek antiquities to the British Museum “to fill the gap left when the (Parthenon) Marbles finally return to the place they belong”. 
Mr Samaras was responding to comments made by British Museum spokeswoman, Hannah Boulton, on Greek radio. 
She said under existing British Museum policy the museum would consider loan requests by any foreign government, including Greece. 
But all requests would be considered on a case-to-case basis, taking many factors into consideration, including fitness of the item or items to travel. 
Greece would also have to recognise the museum’s ownership rights to the sculptures, which is a loan condition.

Ms Boulton told the BBC that the British Museum had not received a request from Greece, nor had it offered the marbles for loan.
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"a powerful broadside aimed at Britain"

That’s how Frank Partride describes the New Acropolis Museum in the Independent:

At the museum entrance, a signboard describes the Parthenon Gallery as a “dress rehearsal for a permanent exhibition of the entire frieze”. For the Greeks, it’s no longer a matter of if the marbles are returned, but when. Bernard Tschumi, the museum’s Swiss-born architect, signed off his €130m creation with the words: “I’m convinced the marbles will come back. Their return will make sense straight away.” 
Professor Dimitrios Pandermalis, the academic who has overseen the six-year project, speaks with the quiet certainty of someone who knows his big moment is at hand, after a very Athenian sequence of delays that have postponed the opening by nearly a year. Building anything in Athens is bound to turn up a treasure or two in the subsoil, and as the holes were being sunk to house the museum’s load-bearing piles, a 5,000-year-old urban settlement was discovered, which had to be carefully excavated and incorporated into the design. They’ve achieved this triumphantly, turning part of the ground floor into a glass walkway directly above the ruins, giving the impression that the museum is suspended in mid-air.
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Trading Stonehenge for the Parthenon (UPDATE)

Over at Elginism there is an interesting April 1st post on the recent discovery of what might be missing stones from Stone Henge.

The recent discovery of what are thought to be some of the missing megaliths from Stone Henge has been covered extensively in the Greek media during the last week. The stones were found at a site (the location of which is being kept secret whilst a full archaeological study is being carried out) in the Peloponnese. It is thought that they were taken from Britain during Roman times, whilst Greece was also part of the Roman Empire.

What has caused particular controversy in the UK, is the Greeks current refusal to consider returning these stones which are believed to have been an integral part of Britain’s most important historic monument.

Would the UK government’s stance on the Parthenon Marbles be different if Greece held a corresponding piece of heritage which ‘belongs’ in its original context? The ‘discovery’ has prompted an Early Day Motion today from Andrew George MP.

The Return of the Stonehenge Megaliths from Greece

That this House is euphoric about the news of the discovery of many of the missing megaliths from Stonehenge in a remote and mountainous area of the Peloponnese Peninsula in Greece to where they were taken to build an amphitheatre; considers this to be the single most important discovery in British archaeology for more than a century; yet is astounded at the brazen effrontery of the Greek authorities who have scandalously refused their return to Britain where they rightly belong; believes the Greeks have attempted to defend their decision with the kind of shameless and preposterous poppycock of an ancient colonial power; calls on the Greeks to put right the wrongs of their forefathers during that shameful period of ancient Greek imperial history; and asks HM Government on the day of the announcement of this find, April 1st 2009, to answer the extraordinary Greek claim that there is no difference between this and the holding by the British Museum of the Parthenon Marbles.

Early day motions are formal motions submitted for debate in the House of Commons, though they are primarily a vehicle to publicize individual views of MPs or draw attention to a specific issue. April 1st EDM’s maybe especially poignant.

UPDATE:

Yes indeed this was of course a prank, but a clever one, and I thought I gave away that this was a bit of April 1st silliness. Andrew George has been a proponent of returning the marbles. It seems the EDM was not even tabled, as it wasn’t sufficiently based in fact. It’s a nice little hypothetical though, what if the best-known piece of British heritage was possessed abroad; might that make the Parthenon dispute look differently?

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

UK May Revise Nazi-looted Art Policies

The UK is considering new legislation that would revise the restitution process to more easily allow national museums to return works of art looted during World War II.  The Holocaust (stolen art) restitution bill would allow these institutions to return objects from their collections.  Andrew Dismore, the Labour MP for Hendon is quoted in the Guardian:  “I hope it will close another chapter from the Holocaust . . .  It means recognising a right that has been denied for decades. I suspect many people would be prepared to allow their artwork to stay in public collections but it’s their right to decide what happens to it.”

The change is needed because of cases like this one:

When the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939, the Feldmanns were evicted from their home, leaving a collection of Old Master drawings in Gestapo hands. Arthur died after being tortured by the Nazis in the Spilberk Castle prison in his home city of Brno. Gisela died in Auschwitz.

With the help of the London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe, Feldmann’s descendants proved that four of his drawings had ended up in the British Museum. The museum was prepared to return them to the family but was blocked by a high court judge. Instead the family negotiated a deal, including an ex-gratia payment of £175,000, that allows the drawings to remain in London. 

Feldmann’s grandson Uri Peled, 66, who lives in Israel, said that although he did not wish to have the items returned, the principle of the bill – allowing the rightful owner to make the decision about what to do with their art – was important.

 The change will open speculation for claims for other works in UK institutions that may have been taken under less-than-appropriate circumstances—like the Parthenon marbles, the Benin bronzes, the Rosetta stone, or the Lewis chessmen.  As such the legislation is limited to “objects stolen between 1933 and 1945 by the Nazi regime”.  Though the legislation is sharply focused on a narrow historical period, one wonders why only those objects are left open for restitutions when the others are not.  The Second World War was a special circumstance perhaps, but its not clear how that historical period is different from other conflicts. 

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

"Architecture as Propaganda"

So notes Peter Aspden in a long discussion of the New Acropolis Museum in the Financial Times:

Next spring, visitors will set foot inside Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi’s glass-and-concrete edifice, all sharp edges and skewed angles, and address for themselves one of the the most intractable cultural disputes of modern times. When they travel to the museum’s top floor, they will see marble panels from the famous frieze that used to encircle the Parthenon, the symbol of Athenian democracy that stands like a staid, elderly relative, looking wearily across at the upstart building from its incomparable vantage point on top of the Acropolis a few hundred metres away. 

Only about half of the original panels will be on view, of course. The remainder famously, or infamously, line the walls of the Duveen gallery in London’s British Museum, to which they were transported in the early 19th century by the Scottish aristocrat Thomas Bruce, seventh earl of Elgin. 

The Greeks have long wanted their Marbles back, but the building of the new Acropolis Museum finally gives them the physical authority to buttress an argument that has too often relied on shrill sentimentalism and unsubtle jingoism. The museum is a provocation, an enticement, a tease. Tschumi has done everything other than daub slogans on the exterior walls to say to the world at large: “The Parthenon Marbles belong here, next to the building from which they were taken.”

The glass rectangle on top of the building is designed in the same proportions and at the same angle to the Acropolis as the Parthenon itself. It is flooded with natural light, and supported by concrete columns that, again, echo the architectural features of the ancient monument. The frieze looks proudly outward, as it did for centuries on its parent building, rather than brooding inwardly as it does in Bloomsbury. This, be sure of it, is architecture as propaganda. 

It’s no accident I think that the entrance and exit of the museum feature archaeological excavations. Setting aside questions of ownership and historical taking, which space seems more appropriate for the display of the objects?  Which space would be more enjoyable or enlightening for the visitor?  Will it only be a matter of time before the Greeks build the necessary consensus for the return of the sculptures?

Greece held a ceremony on Tuesday to mark the voluntary return of a fragment from the Parthenon taken by a German soldier in 1943.  Greek Culture Minister Michalis Liapis noted “The request for the return of the Parthenon Marbles has exceeded the borders of our country. It has become the request and the vision of the global cultural community”. 

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The Long Shadow of the Parthenon


Michael Liapis, Greek Minister of Culture, gave the opening remarks at the conference on “Return of Cultural Property to its Country of Origin”. He managed to get a good deal of press coverage, including a Reuters story.

Unfortunately I found his comments unhelpful, as did David Gill. He attempts to link the Greek quest for the return of the Parthenon marbles from the British Museum and elsewhere with the decisions by the Getty, the Met, and the MFA in Boston to return relatively recent and looted antiquities. The two claims could not be more different. One can be characterized as a historical dispute, while the others are examples of clear wrongful conduct, many of which involved criminal wrongdoing.

Liapis argues “More and more museums are adopting tighter ethics codes and governments promote bilateral and international cooperation (for the return of ancient objects)… So an ideal momentum is being created … for clear solutions on this issue.”

Gill responds, quite rightly, that the major difference between these two claims is context. We know where the Parthenon Marbles came from, we have their context. In fact one can see the context from the new Parthenon Museum, pictured here. However we don’t know for sure where many of the looted antiquities which were returned in recent years came from. Their context is lost to us. He follows this up by asking a pointed question in return, will Greece take steps to return Bulgarian silver from the Pazardzhik Byzantine Silver Hoard?

Others have perhaps said this more persuasively than I, but I think cultural policymakers only make the situation worse when they link historical events such as Lord Elgin’s removal of the marbles with recent criminal activity on a widespread scale. There may be a persuasive claim for the return of the marbles to Athens, however such a claim is not likely to succeed by making such unhelpful comparisons.

The closer link is with the Bulgarian silver, which it seems Greek’s legal system is unable to adequately return to Bulgaria.

On an unrelated note, the Acropolis museum, where this event is being held was reviewed by Richard Lacayo.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

More on Antiquities Leasing

Can antiquities leasing form a good compromise between strict regulation, which can be counterproductive, and the cultural property trade? Tim Harford has an interesting article in Slate today, Rent-A-Treasure: How to Eliminate the Black Market in Stolen Antiquities. He talks more about the working paper Antiquities: Long-Term Leases as an Alternative to Export Bans, co-authored by Michael Kremer and Tom Wilkening. Kremer and Wilkening take an economic perspective and argue antiquities leasing is a better alternative to the current rigid regulation which ends up fostering a black market.

Leasing is an exciting idea as I’ve argued before; but not in every case. The Slate article does a good job of painting the problem in broad strokes, and traces the idea to the antiquities controversy which is probably the most widely known, the Parthenon Marbles. Some kind of sharing agreement between the British Museum and Greece might work in theory, but neither side would be willing to undergo such a compromise in my view. A better use of leasing would be in developing source nations in response to the illicit trade of today, not long-standing repatriation disputes. Source nation antiquities leasing could produce revenue, foster international appreciation, all while objects are still under the control of the source nation

The first mention of the idea, that I am aware, came in 1993 by Nusin Asgari. The former head of the Antiquities Museum in Istanbul, Turkey, argued that ten-year loan agreements between major museums might reduce the temptation to acquire antiquities illicitly. (Suna Erdem, New Trojan War Highlights Pillage of Turkey’s Past, Reuters, Oct. 13, 1993, available in LEXIS, News Library, Curnws File).

There are a few versions of this idea in practice, including the blockbuster King Tut exhibition, which I would venture to say was more about showing off the gold than anything else, and that seemed to be Tyler Cowen’s take as well.

But a far better example is the Menil Collection Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum in Houston, pictured here. The frescoes were stolen during the Turkish occupation of Cyprus in the 1980’s. With the permission of the Church of Cyprus, the Menil Foundation agreed to a long-term lease and restoration. This is a far better example than the King Tut exhibition, which seemed far more concerned with earning revenue than education or conisseurship. I haven’t seen the chapel in Houston, but the final product looks stunning. It’s an example of what the antiquities market can and should produce, and everyone wins.

There was also a great deal of uproar over Lynne Munson’s criticism over the National Geographic Society’s deal with Afghanistan to display the Bactrian gold, which I talked about here. Are folks aware of other good, or bad antiquities leasing schemes? I’d be very interested to know, if you would care to share them in the comments section.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com