Art Around the World

Give Us Back Our Marbles

By Tom Gross, July 18, 2000

Greece is set to make a fresh attempt to recover the Parthenon marbles from Britain. But Britain insists that the 2,500-year-old marbles, shipped to London by the Earl of Elgin in 1801 and on display at the British museum since 1816, are not going anywhere. Six million people a year now view them at the museum.

The Greeks are fuming after Britain rejected a secret compromise offer that would have allowed the UK to retain some of the hotly disputed ancient treasures. Now they are determined to get back all the antiquities. They claim Lord Elgin was an “imperialistic vandal” who “plundered” them from the Parthenon. Britain says he purchased them legally.

Although Prince Charles recently told his friend King Constantine of Greece that the marbles should be returned, most of Britain’s political and cultural establishment is adamantly against the idea. Where is the famous British fair play, the Greeks want to know.

ArtWatch UK, the country’s leading pro-restoration lobby group, claims that the “rescue” of the marbles from Greece preserved them from neglect and deterioration. The organization says Greece’s mistreatment of its own air-polluted and graffiti-ridden sculptures – some of which have lost their heads and torsos – has been “disastrous,” in contrast to Lord Elgin “supreme act of cultural rescue.” They also point out that the museums of the world are full of art originating in other countries – which is part of their point and one of the main reasons so many people visit them.

The Greeks counter that the greatest damage to the marbles was “a barbarous cleaning” carried out by the British Museum 60 years ago. They contend that the cleaners used steel wool, hammers and copper chisels to try and remove grime and stains. “The marbles were tortured,” says one outraged Greek politician.

Earlier this year, the British Museum did hand back to Egypt a sculpted stone head, believed to be of Pharaoh Rameses II’s principal queen, Nefertari. But the museum authorities insist that the return of the 3,300-year-old head, which was believed to have been smuggled out of Egypt, has no bearing on the disputed Elgin Marbles.

Now the new Greek government has appointed one of Europe’s most outspoken politicians, Greek citizen Theodore Pangalos, to spearhead an intensification of their 17-year campaign to recover the antiquities and restore wounded national feelings. He is unlikely to mince his words. Last year, when he briefly served as foreign minister, Pangalos – who is known as “King Gaffe” – almost caused diplomatic rifts between Greece and two of its closest allies when he called President Bill Clinton a “shameless liar” and said that Germany was behaving like “a bestial giant with a child’s brain.”

Now he says all his energy will be directed to the marbles. “We will get them back. We plan to show them at the 2004 Olympics in Athens,” he declares.

Article copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.