More Thoughts on the Parthenon Marbles

“[T]he collection is a miracle”. So writes Michael Kimmelman on the opening of the New Acropolis Museum in the NY Times. He notes:




Ownership remains the main stumbling block. When Britain offered a three-month loan of the marbles to the Acropolis Museum last week on condition that Greece recognizes Britain’s ownership, Mr. Samaras swiftly countered that Britain could borrow any masterpiece it wished from Greece if it relinquished ownership of the Parthenon sculptures. But a loan was out.
Pity. Asked whether the two sides might ever negotiate a way to share the marbles, Mr. Samaras shook his head. “No Greek can sign up for that,” he said.
Elsewhere, museums have begun collaborating, pooling resources, bending old rules. The British Museum, the [Met], the Louvre and other great public collectors of antiquity have good reason to fear a slippery slope if the marbles ever do go back, never mind what the Greeks say.

Pity indeed. Lee Rosenbaum argues today that such a loan would be difficult, More daunting than logistics of shuttling this monumental work back and forth is the issue of trust: The British Museum would need ironclad assurances that once the marbles were in Athens, they would be allowed to leave when the time came for their long-term London sojourn. I keep envisioning Elgin Marble Riots, with distraught Greeks hurling themselves in the path of transport trucks.”  
However one comes down on this issue, it really is true I think that we are all the poorer for the inability of both the Greeks and the British Museum to work together, because somehow and in some form the sculptures should be viewed together, as one unified work of monumental art.

Here is David Gill’s terrific video post on the Parthenon Marbles dispute:


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Gerstenblith on Schultz and Barakat

Patty Gerstenblith has posted a recent article, Schultz and Barakat:  Universal Recognition of National Ownership of Antiquities, which appeared in the recent issue of Art, Antiquity and Law, Vol. 14, No. 1, Apr. 2009.  She discusses the two recent cases in the United States and United Kingdom which lay out the requirements for how courts in these two nations view national ownership declarations of art and antiquities by other nations of origin.  Here is the abstract:

Two decisions, one in the United Kingdom and one in the United States, decided just about five years apart, are significant for universalising the principle that vesting laws – laws that vest ownership of antiquities in a nation – create ownership rights that are recognized even when such antiquities are removed from their country of discovery and are traded in foreign nations. This basic principle has proven to be very controversial in the United States and has been subjected to bitter criticism; yet virtually the same legal principle, when decided in a British court, received little comment or criticism. Compounding the interest of these two decisions is that, although both decisions came to virtually the identical conclusion, they did so utilizing different methods of analysis.

Although laws regulating cultural heritage have a long history, nations have enacted national ownership laws since the nineteenth century for the dual purposes of preventing unfettered export of antiquities and of protecting archaeological sites in which antiquities are buried. When ownership of an antiquity is vested in a nation, one who removes the antiquity without permission is a thief and the antiquities are stolen property. This enables both punishment of the looter and recovery of possession of the antiquities from subsequent purchasers. By making looted antiquities unmarketable, these laws reduce their economic value. National ownership laws thereby deter the initial theft and the looting of archaeological sites that causes destruction to the historical record and inhibits our ability to reconstruct and understand the human past. While reinforcing these goals, the Schultz and Barakat decisions also bring uniformity to the national treatment of this central legal principle.

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More on the Parthenon Marbles

Det nye AkropolismuseumWith the opening of the Parthenon Museum coming soon, there was bound to be a great deal of discussion of the proper place for the sculptures, which always seems to return to the question of whether Lord Elgin’s taking of the sculptures 200 years ago was rightful, wrongful, illegal, unethical, or a combination of the above.  Part of this has taken the form of a back and forth over whether some kind of loan arrangement could be arranged between the Greeks and the British Museum.  The Guardian reports that the dispute has “indirectly dragged in the Queen, the Greek-born Duke of Edinburgh, and Gordon Brown.”  It also quotes Antonis Samaras, who rejected the very tentative loan proposals because they would somehow legitimize Elgin’s taking of the marbles. That is unfortunate I think, because focusing on the circumstances surrounding the taking are almost certainly going to prevent any kind of resolution to the dispute.

Three months won’t be enough to take them out of their boxes . . . .  As a time frame, it’s bizarre. And agreeing to the condition [of ownership] would be like sanctifying Elgin’s deeds and legitimising the theft of the marbles and the break-up of the monument 207 years ago. No Greek government could accept that.  For the first time, they are opening a window. They see they have to do something, now that the new museum is here.

Hannah Boulton, the British Museum spokeswoman clarified her earlie comments and responded to Samaras saying “It’s not the case that an offer to lend the Parthenon Sculptures was specifically made … It is clear from Mr Samaras’s statement that he does not recognise the British Museum’s legal ownership of the sculptures in our collection, which makes any meaningful discussion on loans virtually impossible.”

I inadvertently caused a minor stir among some commenters earlier this week, including Kwame Opoku when I argued that Greece has no tenable legal claim to the marbles.  By that I mean, if Greece were to bring suit againt the British Museum, its trustees, or even the Government, it would have absolutely no chance of succeeding in court, because far too much time has elapsed, and it is not clear I don’t think that the taking of the marbles was illegal under early 19th century legal principles.  I do not think any court would recognize the takign of the objects as theft, nor am I aware of any international agreements that would consider the removal of the sculptures as theft.  If they were taken today, sure, of course they would be theft because they would be owned by the Greek government; but that was not the legal situation 200 years ago.  As Damjan Krsmanovic points out at the Assemblage, such an examination leads to one obvious conclusion—that the ethics of the time were wrongheaded when viewed from today’s perspective, but that merely critcizing those actions does not get us any closer to where the marbles belong now. 

[I]n order to remove the marbles, Elgin needed to obtain a firman (a permit) from the Ottoman authority, which permitted him to remove any sculptures, inscriptions and the like as he saw fit. Because of the unwieldy size of some pieces, a number were sawn into sections for easier transportation. The use of contemporary ethics, which are a product of a particular context and time, is merely going to result in a biased perspective that nullifies the Ottoman law and Elgin’s actions, which are a product of a different social, cultural, and political context.

 We are left with a very heated, very emotional argument which seems unlikely to be resolved so long as both teh Greeks and the British Museum insist on a kind of public battle for popular opinion.  I think—and perhaps it is naive—that a better solution could be reached far sooner by a collaborative relationship, in which some or all of the marbles or even some other objects of antiquity are shared back and forth among the two nations. 
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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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Looted Objects Returned to Afghanistan

The BBC reports on the return of 1,500 objects which were seized by customs agents at Heathrow airport.  A great deal of attention was given to the looting of the Baghdad Museum and other sites in Iraq.  But are we ignoring the problems in Afghanistan?  This may be only a fraction of the objects which are escaping its borders. 

A 900-year-old bronze bird.

More than 1,500 artefacts were recovered in an 11-day operation. Many are priceless objects of Islamic art looted in illegal excavations.


They include a magnificent tall bronze bird. Nine-hundred years ago, its owner would have burned incense in the drawer that slots into its puffed chest.


“We are really happy to have our objects back,” says Mohammad Fahim Rahimi, who has been preparing descriptions of the recovered treasures in the Dari language for the display cabinets.


There are prehistoric tools – up to 6,000 years old – and ancient coins, as well as more recent Islamic tiles, inscribed basins and bronze candlesticks.


“We wish all the countries around the world – if they have our collections – would transfer them back to our country too,” Mr Rahimi says.


During Afghanistan’s civil war, Kabul museum was on the front line. Used as a base by the Mujahedin, the building was badly damaged. But most devastating of all – 70% of its rich collection was systematically looted and smuggled abroad.


Much of what survived was then smashed to bits by the Taliban.

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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

Nighthawking Report Published: Illegal Metal Detecting Has Decreased

The long-awaited report upon the impact of illegal metal detecting (“nighthawking”) conducted by Oxford Archaeology on behalf of English Heritage, is now available from  the Historic Environment Local Management website.  It appears that illegal metal detecting in England has declined since 1995, the point at which soon after, in 1997, the Portable Antiquities Scheme first began its efforts.

Ownership declaration is an important legal strategy undergirding the protection of heritage; but this declaration in isolation does not necessarily create the best cultural heritage policy. Effectively guarding every archaeological site is impossible given limited resources. The looting of corresponding sites elsewhere in the World, particularly in North and South America is a travesty and presents a foudational problem with heritage policy. One potential solution is a policy framework and network of PAS-style liason officers. That’s not to say that these states should encourage metal-detecting, but the efforts of the PAS have appeared to substantially decreased looting and illegal activity.  Education and outreach, even if it means compromise, are essential. Outreach and education is badly needed.

The PAS works in conjunction with the law, which was of course a compromise postion between heritage advocates and landowners. A very strong legal regime may in a perfect world be the best policy. But what good are they if they aren’t meaningfully enforced? In the heritage context, the PAS and metal detectorists are producing contextual information. It’s a different kind of information, which we can characterize as shallow but extremely broad; rather than a thorough documentation of sites which might be narrow but very deep.

The most interesting revelation of the report is the suggestion that metal detecting has substantially decreased since the PAS began.  In 1995, 188 scheduled monuments were reported damaged; in 2008, that number was 70.  In 1995, 74% of archaeological units reported their sites had been molested; in 2008 that number is 28%.  I take that as pretty strong support for the proposition I argued for in my recent piece on the Portable Antiquities Scheme, A Coordinated Legal and Policy Approach to Undiscovered Antiquities: Adapting the Cultural Heritage Policy of England and Wales to Other Nations of Origin, IJCP (2008).

Despite the overall decrease, the report still argues the criminal penalties remain insufficient, and the local enforcement officers and the Crown Prosecution Service need to do more to ensure individuals caught violating the law receive suitable punishment.  At present the maximum penalty is three months in prison and a £1,000 fine. 

The report provides a number of other key points:

  1. Provide clear guidance to the police, Crown Prosecution Service and Magistrates on the impact of Nighthawking, how to combat it, levels of evidence and possible penalties.
  2. Provide more information for landowners on identifying Nighthawking and what to do when they encounter it.
  3. Develop better ways to find out what is going on and establish and promote a central database of reported incidents of Nighthawking.
  4. Publicise the positive effects of responsible metal detecting and the negative effects of Nighthawking.
  5. Ensure the PAS is fully funded, so links between archaeologists and metal detectorists are further strengthened.
  6. Integrate metal detecting into the archaeological process, including development control briefs.
  7. Implement changes recently introduced in Europe which increase the obligation on sellers of antiquities to provide provenances and establish legal title, and urge eBay to introduce more stringent monitoring of antiquities with a UK origin offered for sale on their website.

Media Coverage:
Bloomberg, Telegraph, AFP, BBC, Guardian, Times


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