The British Museum is the proud possessor of some of Greece’s most ancient and priceless artefacts. In the bicentenary of the Greek War of Independence it is meet to reflect on what wonders Greece has wrought and whether there ought to be a restitution of the Ancient Greek monuments that are now held far from Greece.
How did these friezes from Athens come to be in London? Cast your mind back over 200 years. Greece was a province of the Ottoman Empire. Proud Ellas had been subjugated by the Turks in the 15th century. The Orthodox Christians were reduced to dhimmi status. Many Hellenes resolved to endure the galling yoke of Ottoman oppression no longer. They valiantly battled against overwhelming odds to cast off the heavy shackles cast in Istanbul.
It was during the Greek War of Liberation that the British ambassador to the Sublime Porte was the Earl of Elgin. Like most British patricians his noble lordship was classically educated. He had been brought up on tales of the resplendence and genius of the Greek race. In Athens he saw that the Acropolis (‘’upper city’’) was used by the Ottoman Army as a munitions dump. By happenstance or design the Parthenon (‘’virgin temple’’) could have been blown to zhenat.
Many are under the impression that Lord Elgin bought the artefacts during a time of conflict: i.e. when there was a high chance of the marbles being destroyed by accident or design. That is not so. He removed them 1801-12. That was before the Greek War of Independence commenced.
Lord Elgin requested that the Ottoman authorities sell him the statues and relief sculptures in the Parthenon. To Muslims these idolatrous stones were junk at best. The Ottomans happily sold the artefacts as they had no value to the Ottomans. The Ottomans could not believe their luck that infidels were foolish enough to willingly to pay for rock carvings.
Whether the Earl of Elgin purchased the marbles from the Ottomans is dubious. He never provided the original firman that was said to have granted him permission to take the artefacts. Such a firman cannot be found in the Turkish archives. Some said even in the 1820s that such a firman was never given. It is claimed that he paid a bribe or at the very least a facilitation fee to take the items.
The Elgin Marbles were shipped back to the United Kingdom. There they have been the centrepiece of the British Museum ever since.
In the 1820s many Britons were Philhellenes. Lord Byron was foremost of those Britons who made Greece’s cause his own. He journeyed to the ancient land that was the cradle of Occidental civilisation. His lordship believe that few conflicts were as clear cut as this one: a case of good against evil. Byron died of an illness at Missolonghi. His memory is hallowed in Greece to this day where many places are named in his honour.
The Greek Government has a campaign entitled ‘bring them back’. They agitate for the United Kingdom to restore the plundered priceless artefacts.
THE CASE AGAINST RESTITUTION
Some say that the Elgin Marbles ought to remain in situ. Were it not for the British then the Elgin Marbles might have been blown sky high in Athens. Might have been but would not have been. The Parthenon was never exploded. People did not know that over 200 years ago but we do now.
Athens used to be very polluted. There was a huge amount of acid rain. This injured many ancient monuments. That was advanced as an argument for the UK retaining the monuments. Yet this argument is now inoperable.
Many museums all around the world have items from other countries. Should every museum divest itself of all these items? Perhaps general restitution is the way. But much rides on how an item came to be in the museum. Was it fairly purchased? Was it a free gift? Was it carried off as war booty? Was it handed over pursuant to a peace treaty.
In British hands the Elgin Marbles have been damaged. The cleaning method used ruined some of the artistry.
Many people – by no means all Greek – believe that the Elgin Marbles ought to return to Greece. These items were hewn in Greece and stood there for well over two hundred decades.
Those who favour the Elgin Marbles being returned to Ellas not that it was Turks and not Greeks who sold the items. Athens contends that the Ottomans had no title to the Elgin Marbles.
Contract law says that there is no legal ownership of goods purchased if one knew them to be stolen. But was Britain innocent in buying these items? The Ottoman subjugation of Greece was no secret. The Ottomans ruled Greece. Like it or not but the Sublime Porte was the government of Greece. Therefore, it can be claimed that the UK purchased these items properly. The restorationists say that this is bunkum. Illegal military occupation never confers legitimacy no matter how long it endures.
The Elgin Marbles have been in the United Kingdom for over two centuries. 6 million people visit the British Museum each year and only 1.5 million go to the museum in Athens where Greece would like to display the Elgin Marbles.
When Greece was economically on her knees perhaps the British should have offered Athens money to renounce all claims to the Elgin Marbles. It is improbable that any Greek Government would have acceded to such a proposition. To do so would have been seen as selling one’s soul.
London notes that if the Elgin Marbles are restored then this will lead to a chorus of cries for other artefacts to be returned whence they came. The British Museum would soon be empty. Is no museum or gallery to own any work outside its original homeland? Western museums and galleries do not wish to go down that road. No all objets d’art have such a contentious provenance. Many works were fairly and squarely purchased. There are, however, items that were looted.
Could joint ownership be declared? Could there be a long term loan by the United Kingdom to Greece? Should it be the other way around? With goodwill and common sense surely an honourable accommodation can be arrived at.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.