August 18, 2022
a high-stakes game of marbles

Here we go again. Debate about the Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum – Should they not be returned to Greece, where there is a magnificent purpose-built museum on the side of the Acropolis, from where the statues were torn down by Lord Elgin from 1801-05, sitting waiting for them Were. – It seems to go on forever.

In the 1980s, Melina Mercouri, then Greece’s Minister of Culture, launched a vigorous campaign for his return; He never stopped trying until his death in 1994. An official request from Greece to the UK parliament was denied – but has since remained open. And it was more than a decade ago that my then-colleague Peter Aspen, himself half-Greek and an avid returner, put forth in this paper a very workable plan that included a system of credit and sharing, and A proprietary structure that will save face on every side. It could have saved a lot of trouble – but some people won’t listen, right?

This time, Jonathan Williams, deputy director of the British Museum, pushed the issue back and forth after coming out with an over-cautious statement about a possible new “cultural exchange” agreement regarding the Parthenon sculptures. and Professor Nikolaos Stampolidis, Director of the Acropolis Museum. The latter reaction was far stronger, moving the debate to global proportions: “The issue of idols is not bilateral, it is a matter of international, Western culture, not only of Europe, but . . . in all democracies,” said Stampolidis. Told.

There are marble sculptures from the Parthenon in many places – the Louvre, the Vatican, museums in Copenhagen, Vienna and Munich – but it is the race to the British Museum that matters most. Not only in terms of quantity but for the sheer immorality and arrogance of their loot.

In every one of the many restoration and repatriation cases now frequented around the world, this aspect – the way it happened – gives a strong weight to the rights and wrongs involved. But these cases are sometimes extremely complex, keeping lawyers engaged for years.

When it comes to the legal, rather than emotional or moral, aspects of restoration claims, antiquities and ancient artifacts are often simpler. And the Parthenon marbles are perhaps the most obvious case of all: They answer all the test questions. We know where they were originally, when and how they were removed. To remove doubts there is no difference in the chain of ownership. And we know that if (I must say when) they come back, they will be looked after beautifully.

It’s not always so straightforward. There are items that do not actually have a definite place of origin, creator or original owner. Some restoration claims refer to a site of “modern discovery”: where they were excavated, bought or even stolen, where they were made. These hanging artifacts may present the biggest problem for museum staff to face claims.

Yet despite all the resistance from the museums, despite the expense and hardship, the tears and the trouble and the war of words, the restoration has progressed at a great pace over the years.

In the US last year an ancient Gilgamesh tablet was returned to Iraq, more than 100 artifacts were returned to Pakistan, and Ethiopia received significant pieces looted by British troops in the 1860s. These pieces and many like them were recovered by the authorities when they discovered that antiques were being traded in a vibrant but often suspicious market, with stolen proceeds, modern-day plunder or dishonesty.

Germany is behaving well, returning items to its former colonial territories in present-day Namibia and announcing the return of its Benin bronze; The Netherlands and Belgium have also made a series of good-natured moves. And in 2020 the Senate of France voted to return 27 important cultural objects to Benin and Senegal.

It all sounds so right and reasonable and optimistic. But such artifacts, no matter how precious, have a significance beyond their own, as Alexander Hermann points out in his recent book Restoration: the return of cultural artifacts.

When French President Emmanuel Macron made his dramatic announcement in Burkina Faso in 2017 – a sweeping promise to return all African artifacts to French museums that were acquired illegally – he had more than art and antiquities on his mind. He was deploying cultural soft power in some obvious ways. Correcting the mistakes of the past, yes. But using the Restoration as a way to re-establish their country’s standing Francophone Africa, trumpeting a clear break with the colonial past, forge new economic and diplomatic relations based on goodwill. As Hermann puts it: “The goal of expanding French territories is well met by engagement with African countries around questions of restoration.”

Hermann also talks about China. Often through market rather than official repatriation claims, China (and its millionaire elite) is relentlessly recovering art and cultural objects taken by foreign invaders and adventurers. However, indemnity wars also work through other channels.

According to Hermann, “The impressive new museum in Dakar, Senegal, which now houses restored materials from France? Paid with €35mn from China . . . and it should be added that the port of Dakar is a necessary deepening at the western tip of the continent.” Represents the transportation hub of water.”

In addition, Chinese President Xi Jinping returned strongly to the Parthenon marbles debate during a 2019 visit to Greece when he visited Greece, a diplomatically shrewd move, says Hermann: a cultural issue about the Greeks. To be nice is not a bad idea. When the Chinese-owned port of Piraeus is an important linchpin for China’s trade with Europe.

It seems that this particular game of marbles has some unwritten rules. Today’s quarrels over pieces of stone or metal can have a profound effect on the future.

John Daly FT’s art editor

FT Weekend Festival, London

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