Elginism: Is it time to return the Parthenon Marbles?

The case of the Greek prime minister trying to get back ancient treasures raises the question of art restitution.

Joe Millward
29th November 2021
Image Credit: Flickr, Wikimedia Commons
Elginism: the taking of cultural treasures, often from one country to another (usually to a wealthier one). The term is derived from the title of Thomas Bruce, 7th earl of Elgin, who allegedly received permission from the Turkish government to remove artefacts from Greece, then under Turkish control (Encyclopedia Britannica).

The Elgin Marbles are easily the most famous art restitution case in the world. The marbles were taken by Lord Elgin during the Greek war of independence supposedly for preservation. Every year hence, the Greek government has requested the artefacts back, and have always been refused. Deniers, Like our PM, believe that the marbles were “acquired legally at the time”, and will remain safer at the British Museum. 

The word "elginism" exists to describe thousands of similar instances, as the unspoken truth is that should the marbles return, many countries will be forced to follow suit, reuniting Egypt with the Rosetta Stone and its countless ancient treasures, and many African nations with their history, like the Benin Bronzes of Nigeria.

The Elgin Marbles; Image Credit: Flickr

Art restitution is tricky, but in the case of the Elgin Marbles, I believe it to be cut and dry. Firstly the phrase, “Legally at the time” immediately denotes that the move is morally wrong, and the legality of the case was questionable at the time. Bruce was required to be exonerated, even before it was found the Turkish permission was a translation, of a copy, of a firmen (document) that has never been proved to exist, which only specified objects in the excavation site and not the friezes. 

It is important to remember that the marbles were taken for protection from the Greek war of independence. Britain backed Greek Independence, even while conversing with the Ottomans to take the marbles. It is yet another example of imperialism affecting countries thousands of miles from our tiny isle. As for protection, there are four instances of damage, half of which the UK is directly responsible for. The marbles were heavily damaged during removal, and many of the efforts to clean the frieze with acid by the British Museum have only further damaged the artefacts.

I led with a quote from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, to show even our most meticulous record recognizes our link to the marbles is murky. Upon reading the record, I found that the Ottoman-Turkish soldiers had used lead from the Parthenon to make bullets, and Greek soldiers had offered their own ammunition to their enemy to prevent the vandalism. I have seen the Elgin Marbles once, and despite their beauty, it is undeniable they mean far more to the Greek nation than me and mine.

It is clear that countries will always clutch anything of value, even if the art is valued far higher in another culture. 

Art restitution is tricky, with thousands of conflicts, and millions of pieces of art muddled among them, ownership obscured by the passage of time. Recently Poland has come under international scrutiny for not returning Nazi-looted goods to Israel, even while reclaiming their own artefacts from Germany. It is clear that countries will always clutch anything of value, even if the art is valued far higher in another culture. 

Perhaps we will only see how people truly value stolen art when they must lay down their lives, voluntarily arming the enemy in its preservation. I know I wouldn’t make that sacrifice for the Elgin Marbles.

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