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Friday, 18 January, 2002, 05:16 GMT
Nations squabble over antiquities
The Elgin Marbles at the British Museum in London
Should relics like the Elgin Marbles be returned?
By BBC News Online's David Chazan

Calls are growing for the return of antiquities - such as the ancient Parthenon sculptures known as the Elgin Marbles - to their countries of origin.

A group of British celebrities and politicians has joined the Greek campaign for Britain to send back the Elgin Marbles - removed from Athens two centuries ago by the British ambassador, Lord Elgin.

The question of whether western museums should be emptied in order to return artefacts to their countries of origin is not being discussed at all

Laurent Levi-Strauss
The British government and the director of the British Museum, where the 2,500-year-old friezes are displayed, have refused - arguing that they are being well cared for and have been seen by more people than if they had been returned to Greece.

Ethiopia is demanding the return from Italy of one of its most famous monuments - an obelisk.

It was taken to Italy on the orders of dictator Benito Mussolini more than 60 years ago when Ethiopia was occupied by Italy.

Italy has agreed in principle to return the obelisk, but has not done so, expressing concern about possible damage during shipment.

HAVE YOUR SAY Other countries which say they have suffered cultural losses include Egypt, China, India, Iraq, Libya and Syria.

The United Nations cultural organisation says it is ready to help achieve a negotiated solution to such disputes.

The Axum obelisk in Rome
This 1,000-year Ethiopian obelisk was brought to Italy on the orders of Mussolini
Laurent Levi-Strauss, deputy director of UNESCO's division of cultural heritage, told News Online that "support is growing among the general public and in governments for the return of objects which have been stolen or looted."

But he added: "The question of whether western museums should be emptied in order to return artefacts to their countries of origin is not being discussed at all."

19th Century values

Nations victorious in war have often plundered the antiquities, treasures and works of art of their vanquished foes.

Former colonial powers such as Britain and France often justified their actions by arguing that they were better able to preserve the artefacts and make them available to scholars.

A 1970 UNESCO convention calls for the return of antiquities and works of art to their countries of origin, but does not apply to artefacts or objects taken to other countries before 1970.

Professor Peter Warren, a lecturer in Ancient History and Classical Archaeology at Bristol University in the UK, told News Online that there has been a change of ethos.

"You have to pay attention to when any material was acquired," he said. "There was a completely different ethos in the 19th century."

Illicit plundering

Professor Warren says that in the 20th century, the illicit looting of antiquities from their countries of origin and their sale to dealers or collectors had a disastrous effect on scholarship.

"When this happens, the history of a country is being destroyed," he said.

"If you can't excavate things in their context, they become mere objects and it's just a question of whether they look better on your mantelpiece or mine."

The long years of war have not been kind to Afghanistan's cultural heritage.

Its national museum has been repeatedly looted - and it is difficult for poor Afghans to resist the temptation to dig up relics from historical sites, knowing that there is a rich market in wealthy countries for ancient artefacts.

Jewel in the crown

The Taleban - internationally condemned for destroying Buddhist statues - had demanded that the British royal family hand over part of its crown jewels - the Koh-i-Noor diamond.

File picture of Buddha statue in Bamyan, Afghanistan, destroyed by the Taleban
Before the Taleban demolished it, this was the world's tallest standing Buddha statue
The Koh-i-Noor came to the UK from India 150 years ago and was presented to Queen Victoria.

Five countries - including Pakistan, Iran and India - lay claim to the jewel.

Many artefacts in Europe were destroyed, looted or lost during World War II.

More recently, the Balkan countries have suffered losses from war or looting, while the illicit trade in artefacts has severely depleted Cambodia's antiquities.

Africa's cultural treasures are also prized by international collectors - and are increasingly being plundered, experts say.

Poor countries are especially vulnerable to the illegal trade in antiquities.

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Marbles row
Should Elgin treasures go back to Greece?

Could the British Museum survive such a loss?
See also:

15 Jan 02 | Arts
Elgin Marbles 'staying' in UK
22 Jun 01 | Africa
No return for Ethiopian treasure
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