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Monday, 9 December, 2002, 14:58 GMT
Museums thwart artefact claims
New York's Metropolitan Museum
New York's Metropolitan Museum signed up to the statement
Some of the world's leading museums have joined forces to declare that they will not hand back ancient artefacts to their countries of origin.

Directors of 18 institutions, from St Petersburg to New York, signed a declaration saying their collections act as "universal museums" for the good of the world.

People have only been able to fully appreciate ancient civilisations because their institutions have provided access to archaeological, artistic and ethnic objects, they say.

The statement follows increased calls for the return of artefacts that were removed decades or centuries ago, such as the controversial Elgin Marbles, which are in the British Museum.

A similar row has simmered over the Benin Bronzes that are kept in London and Berlin, while Turkey has been pushing for the return of the Pergamon Altar, also currently on show in Berlin.

In 1993, the Metropolitan Museum of Art reluctantly handed over 363 pieces of gold, silver, precious stones, paintings and sculptures to Turkey after a court case.

The directors' declaration said: "The universal admiration for ancient civilisations would not be so deeply established today were it not for the influence exercised by the artefacts of these cultures, widely available to an international public in major museums."

It said Greek culture would not have become so lauded if museums had not put statues on show.

'Not comparable'

"The collections of public museums throughout the world marked the significance of Greek sculpture for mankind as a whole and its enduring value for the contemporary world."

The acquisition of objects in past eras cannot be treated the same as illegal trade in antiquities today, the directors said.

"The objects and monumental works that were installed decades and even centuries ago in museums throughout Europe and America were acquired under conditions that are not comparable with current ones," the statement said.

Parthenon row

The statement was discussed at an informal meeting of directors earlier in 2002, and the heads of institutions including the Louvre in Paris, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York signed up.

The British Museum has not signed up to the declaration, but says it fully supports it.

Over recent years, it has faced growing calls to hand back the Elgin Marbles, sculptures taken from the Parthenon in Athens in the 19th century.

But the British Museum has said it is the "best possible place for them".

"They must remain here if the museum is to continue to achieve its aim, which is to show the world to the world," director Neil McGregor said recently.

Museums signed up to the declaration:

  • The Art Institute of Chicago
  • Bavarian State Museum, Munich (Alte Pinakothek, Neue Pinakothek)
  • State Museums, Berlin
  • Cleveland Museum of Art
  • J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
  • Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York
  • Los Angeles County Museum of Art
  • Louvre Museum, Paris
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
  • The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
  • The Museum of Modern Art, New York
  • Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence
  • Philadelphia Museum of Art
  • Prado Museum, Madrid
  • Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
  • State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg
  • Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid
  • Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
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