By John Smith •
Published: 28 Nov 2023 • 11:29
Elgin Marbles at British Museum
Credit: Andrew Dunn Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic
For centuries colonial powers made sure that they removed pieces of art and fabulous antiques from conquered countries, many of which went into art galleries and museums.
As colonies became independent, many demanded that their heirlooms (which they consider to have been looted) should be returned to their rightful homes.
In more modern times, dictatorships have had a habit of ‘liberating’ works of art and the most obvious was Nazi Germany which stole artifacts not only from personal collections but also from museums and art galleries of the countries that Germany invaded.
For the past couple of decades, many historical items have started to be returned to their countries of origin, but perhaps the largest and most talked about is the 75 metre long strip of sculptures known as the Elgin Marbles which reside in the British Museum in London.
The diplomatic row continues as following an interview with the BBC on Sunday November 26, where Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis demanded the return of the Elgin Marbles, he has since claimed that his meeting with Rishi Sunak was cancelled at the last minute because of this.
He tweeted “I express my dismay that the British Prime Minister cancelled our scheduled meeting just hours before it was due to take place. Anyone who believes in the correctness and justice of their positions is never afraid of opposing arguments.”
He met with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer on November 27, then Mitsotakis was informed that Deputy British Prime Minister Oliver Dowden was available to meet him to discuss various matters.
Created in the Fifth Century BCE (Before Christian Era) these sculptures decorate the exterior of the Parthenon in Athens and Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin was appointed as British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in 1798.
At that time, Athens was part of that Empire and the Parthenon was in a poor condition, even being used to store munitions.
Elgin obtained permission to make moulds of various Greek sculptures which would be brought back to England and plaster images created to be displayed as examples of ancient art.
He appointed a number of agents to undertake the work for him and they discovered that the agreement also allowed for the removal of “any pieces of stone with old inscriptions or images thereon”.
Somewhat to Elgin’s surprise, he ended up with a 75 metre run of the exterior of the Parthenon as well as several individual sculptures with the added cost of having to recover them from a shipwreck.
After a Parliamentary review decided that they had been removed legally, the British Government purchased the collection from Elgin in 1816 for the sum of £35,000 (approximately £3.85 million today), although Elgin estimated that they had cot him more than double that amount.
Since then, they have sat in the British Museum and are the largest collection of sculptures from the Parthenon outside of Athens.
In 1832, Greece gained its independence and has been demanding the return of the marbles ever since but this is not within the purview of the British Museum as The British Museum Act of 1963 specifically forbids the disposal of any items held in the British Museum (except under certain specific circumstances) so any decision would need a new Act of Parliament.
Interestingly, following a Papal Visit to Athens, Pope Francis arranged for three fragments held in the Vatican Museum to be returned to Athens and the clamour for these historical items, which have suffered from poor conservation in the UK continues.
The British Museum has offered to lend some of the sculptures Greece for display in Athens but the Greek authorities have rejected this as if they accepted it could appear that they agreed that the Elgin Marbles rightly belonged to Britain.
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Married to Ophelia in Gibraltar in 1978, John has spent much of his life travelling on security print and minting business and visited every continent except Antarctica.
Having retired several years ago, the couple moved to their house in Estepona and John became a regular news writer for the EWN Media Group taking particular interest in Finance, Gibraltar and Costa del Sol Social Scene.
Currently he is acting as Editorial Consultant for the paper helping to shape its future development.
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