Did Lord Elgin liberate or steal these priceless historic artefacts? Our panellists battle it outby Vicky Pryce, Dominic Selwood / November 13, 2014 / Leave a comment
Should we return the Elgin marbles?
At the beginning of the 19th century, Thomas Bruce, Lord Elgin, was the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, which occupied Greece. He entered the Parthenon in Athens and documented the sculptures, making moulds and casts. He bribed Turkish officials to allow him to engage in daily excavations before removing a large part of the marbles to Britain. Bribing occupying powers to purloin national treasures is not the sort of behaviour usually deemed worthy of a British Ambassador.
The looting that happened during the Second World War has, on the whole, been made good. No one accepts the right of those who occupied half of Europe to walk off with the revered relics of those subjugated nations in the 20th century. So why was it acceptable to do so in the 19th century?
Britain missed a trick by failing to hand the marbles back during the 2012 Olympic Games, which would have been a spectacular gesture. That it did not is a sad reflection on the enfeebled spirit of philhellenism in Britain. Lord Byron, who died in Greece after travelling to fight in its war of independence, condemned the cultural vandalism of his fellow peer, Elgin. But today there are no Lord Byrons in Britain willing to raise their voice.
The marbles might be great emissaries for Greece in the British Museum, but the fact remains that much damage was inflicted on the structure in the process of extracting the pieces that were taken away. They were brought here in dubious circumstances for the personal satisfaction of an individual who then sold stolen goods to the government.
And the name itself jars. Let us never forget the late Melina Mercouri, the actress and former Greek Minister of Culture. Speaking in an Oxford Union debate in 1986 she said:
“…And the Parthenon marbles they are. There are no such things as the Elgin marbles.
There is a Michelangelo David.
There is a Da Vinci Last Supper.
There is a Praxitelles Hermes.