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Monday, 21 January, 2002, 12:50 GMT
Does a nation own its treasures?
A group of celebrities and politicians has launched a campaign to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece.

The Parthenon 2004 campaign pledges to make the British government and museum curators send back the ancient sculptures in time for the Olympics in Athens in 2004.

The marble friezes were removed from the Acropolis two centuries ago by the then British ambassador and are now housed in the British Museum in London.

However, the director, Robert Anderson, has turned down the request stating that the Elgin Marbles are one of the museum's greatest treasures.

Greece has long called for the Parthenon sculptures to be brought back and a 29m museum is under construction in Athens for their return.

Should national treasures like the Elgin Marbles be returned to their country of origin? Or would this open the floodgates for dozens of other countries to secure the return of their antiquities?

This Talking Point was suggested by John Atkins England :

Should the Elgin Marbles be returned to Greece or are they a legally acquired antiquity that should remain in Britain?

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This Talking point has now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.

There is nothing more frustrating than seeing an empty space and a sign stating that the original artefact is located in the British Museum - especially when you're in Peru! I've subsequently attempted to view some of these objects in London and they have not been on display due to "display space limitations". I believe everything should be sent back to its country of origin complete with compensation for the loss of potential museum earnings. Most of these artefacts were, after all, illegally removed by the British and countries such as Peru could use the boost in tourism.
Scott Hemphill, Australia

It does not matter where such treasures as exhibited as long as they are looked after

Giles, England
Great works of art are surely the property of mankind and not of any one country, and it does not matter where such treasures as exhibited as long as they are looked after. The Greeks always forget that, until relatively recently, they paid little interest to their past and did not even bother funding excavations. The fact that we can now see so many physical remains of ancient Greece is mainly due to the efforts of British, American and German archaeologists, who have a right to exhibit the fruits of their labours.
Giles, England

The Elgin Marbles must go back where they came from. Also, the British must return everything they acquired from a position of power as colonial masters in countries they had colonised. Every country has a right to its national heritage and its works of art. It is about time everything, including the Elgin Marbles, go back to their respective countries.
Akbar Ehsan, USA

I am not in favour of all foreign antiquities held in British museums to be repatriated, as the long-term care of the particular article must be the overriding factor. However, the Parthenon sculptures should be returned to Greece. This should happen in time for the Olympics. I have had the pleasure of visiting Athens on two occasions, and have also seen the marbles in the British Museum. The Acropolis Museum in Athens is where the sculptures should be, in their proper home. Lord Elgin acquired the marbles legally in 1799, and certainly they would have been destroyed by occupying forces if this had not happened. But their return to Athens is long overdue.
Andy Claughton, England

Here we go again - the problem with this issue is that it is not simply a question of giving the sculptures back to Greece. This issue is part of the much larger debate on restitution, and whether all artefacts should be returned to their place of origin. The arguments over the Parthenon sculptures cannot be separated from the larger debate. It's hard to see how sending all objects back to where they came from would do anything at all for greater understanding and appreciation of history and culture. Also, this is a debate which concerns many museums all over the world, not just the British Museum.
Julie, UK

Greece will get them back one way or another

Gus, Canada
Since the Turkish Ottoman Empire was an empire imposed on the Greeks, and since the Parthenon and the marbles weren't created by the Turks, then any deal made with them is not valid. It is like someone making you sign over your house to them while another person has you imprisoned. Not legal and not a legitimate argument. The marbles need to go home. And their home is in Athens. The British need to put their greedy ideas into perspective. The empire is no more. Greece will get them back one way or another. They don't belong to the English.
Gus, Canada

No country has any given right or entitlement to a work of art. What if the family of the artist moved to another country, is it not their property by inheritance? It is just a case of: if it's worth money, it's ours?
Alexander McMillan, UK

I think that England should hold onto the marbles along with the Egyptian and other art the British have looted over the years. Unless the British can replace them with items of their own.
Costas C, USA

The notion that might makes it right to plunder the treasures of other nations has died with the British Empire. It is now time for the British to show the world that they are reborn as a less mighty but more humane and rational nation.
Photius, USA

How would you feel if an ambassador stripped Big Ben and sold its components to a Greek museum as an exhibit?

Costas, UK/Cyprus
How would you feel if an ambassador stripped Big Ben and sold its components to a Greek museum as an exhibit? A very unlikely situation nowadays but that's what Lord Elgin did with the Parthenon.
Costas, UK/Cyprus

Seeing as the good ambassador bought the stones from the Turks, they are ours by right. Now that the British people made them popular and declared them art, the Greeks want them. We aren't willing to just sell or give away art. In Greece the Marbles were left to rot whereas here we made them mean something to people and as a result everyone envies the fact that we have them.
James Clarke, UK

It would be bad worldwide publicity for the UK if it doesn't at least lend the Elgin Marbles to Greece. We must all make efforts to build a fair community where the small countries like Greece don't have to prove that it is fair to get back something that belongs to them.
Angelis Apostolos, Greece

If England sent back the marbles then the saying lost your marbles would really be true to who ever agreed to such a stupid idea, I say keep them! And I think Greece is wasting a lot of time and money building a museum, which will never be able to exhibit them, and I honestly don't agree with a deposit of Euros as something secure!

One idea might be to laser scan the marbles and present Greece with perfect replicas of the Marbles so these could then be exhibited in their new museum and people visiting could get a hands on experience, the originals are just to delicate ever to be loaned or moved, they are in safe hands in England.
Terry England, England

Britain should return the Elgin marbles. Athens should have them on time for the Olympics.
Christo Varis, USA

Let's set the record straight: as far as I know the greatest damage to the Parthenon has so far been inflicted by Morozini (who bombed it) and then the British (Elgin, who removed the marbles) not the Turks or the Greeks. So the argument "saved them from certain destruction" is hypothetical at the very least. And as far the argument citing their possible deterioration due to whether/pollution in Athens, all I have to say is this: has the weather/pollution in London been drastically better than that of Athens in the last 150 years? I don't think so.

And to those that say we can't look after them as well as the British Museum, well look at what the museum staff did to them in the early thirties by scrubbing them to "clean them up" or make them look "whiter". I think we're competent enough at looking after our historic heritage. Lastly to those that say "they were bought fair and square" all I can say is, since when does the fact that you paid for something in order to acquire it automatically makes the transaction legal, moral or just?
Stelios, UK/ Greece

Even if Lord Elgin acquired legally the Parthenon sculptures from the Ottoman (sic) government and even if they are safe (?) in the British museum (cleaned with metal brushes in the 30s) what he did was unethical and brutal. The sculptures do not belong to Greeks or the British museum; they belong to the Parthenon and the Acropolis, one of the greatest symbols of western civilisation. The British government has an opportunity to repair the damage that has been done by sending the sculptures to the place they have been made.
Michael, UK

Art, in any form or shape, is the sole property of the rightful owner

Kosmas Mavromatidis, Greece
The case of the Elgin Marbles is not so unique after all. Hitler's Nazis pillaged Europe of any significant form of art they could lay their hands on. Is Elgin's action in any way more justifiable then that of the Nazi Germans? Are we to believe that the Greeks were in any way more capable than the non-German citizens of Axis occupied Europe, to hinter the theft of their national heritage?

Art, in any form or shape is the sole property of the rightful owner whether a nation or a private citizen and not that of well-wishers, no matter how noble their intentions may be. There was no question after the war that all artefacts should be returned to there rightful owners. Why is there one now?
Kosmas Mavromatidis, Greece

It seems everyone wants to be "giving things back" regardless of the legitimacy of the UK's claim to them. If the Marbles were bought fairly then we as a nation own them and it is no more appropriate to give them back than it is to give your house back to the people who sold it to you. Perhaps we should ask George W to play fair and give his country back to us, after all it was ours for hundreds of years.
John B, UK

The Greeks are building a Euro 50m museum to house the marbles, so I think they will be properly taken care of. Returning them is a matter of aesthetics. I understand they will be a loss for the British Museum, I've seen them there and I know they attract a lot of attention but why imagine the Parthenon in London, when you can see it in the background in Athens?
Kostas, Greece

I can understand why countries want their treasures back, but can we risk them being destroyed and lost forever by unstable regimes like Pakistan, Afghanistan, China etc. I think certain treasures belong to the world, not to a particular nation that they happen to reside in, e.g., the Buddha's in Afghanistan or the recently destroyed Fort in Saudi Arabia.
Ash, USA

Of course they should! Now if "British superiority" and other complexes, inherited to the nation by Britain's Imperial-Colonial Past, should first be overcome that's another (sad) matter.
Andreas, France

The Elgin marbles should return to Greece

Georgios, USA (Greece)
The Elgin marbles should return to Greece. To answer to some doubters of their return: Some say they are fragile and might break if transported. I ask you are they fragile enough for the museum to use them for the private parties of the British elite? When people walk around the room and touch the marbles is that not damaging to the "already fragile pieces?" Also we will take care of the marbles better than you do now. This is why the Greek government is building a 12 million euro state-of-the-art museum. How about we buy them from you? Are you willing to negotiate? I would like to say a big thanks to the "British museum" for their careful care in making the marbles whiter. Bleach and iron brittle are very good in whitening the marbles.
Georgios, USA (Greece)

The original London Bridge is now in Arizona. Would that have to go back if the British wanted it? Probably not. Just as Anglophilia is part of American cultural history, a keen interest in ancient Greece and Rome is part of British cultural history. This interest is represented by the classical antiquities in the British Museum.
Matt Simon, US

We should not forget that the Parthenon marbles were taken by Lord Elgin when Greece was under Turkish occupation. It's strange and shameful that Britain still resists to the marble's repatriation, when it is common ground that the decisions of an occupying force are not legitimate by any means of international law.
Demosthenes, Canada

The cultural history of Greece is not the only consideration here. The British, more than any other nation, developed a great and conscientious interest in ancient civilisations during the 19th century that helped preserve classical antiquities from crumbling where they stood (or lay). At this point, the Elgin Marbles and the other famous classical pieces in the British Museum are as important to modern British history as to ancient Greek history.
Hugh Payne, Yorkshire, England

We acquired them fair and square

Martin, England
Why should the Elgin Marbles be returned? We acquired them fair and square. I agree we should loan the Elgin Marbles to Greece for the Olympics, in exchange for a one billion euro deposit.
Martin, England

Each nation has a right to its own history, and whatever rights we may have ascribed to ourselves in our imperial past we must accept we now have no rights over other people's goods or history. I am in no doubt that Greece should get its treasures back, but I am concerned about how those treasures will be cared for. We should do everything we can to help Greece look after them - and Greece should let us.

In 100 years, national identities will hopefully be less emotive, so it won't matter where treasures are located (although for convenience we would all like them on our doorstep). Either way, the US will end up owning most of the world's treasures which will be locked away from everyone's view in US corporate corridors and private US homes.
Martin, UK

It's a matter of reversing the damage Elgin did to an historically important building

Chris B, England
Lord Elgin's removal of the Parthenon frieze was an act of vandalism, which should be rectified. It's not merely a case of returning the Marbles to Greece; it's a matter of reversing the damage Elgin did to an historically important building. Returning the Elgin marbles to Greece is not necessarily setting a precedent for an avalanche of similar cases. If museums hold important component parts of a remote building or piece of art which have been separated from the original, and are important to another nation's cultural heritage, then those artefacts should be returned to their country of origin. It's important to make sure they are placed in a historically sympathetic context - preferably with custodians who will properly preserve and care for them.
Chris B, England

I do not feel that they should be sent back to Greece, although the British took them almost two centuries ago, they now belong here. There is the problem of how to return the Marbles without damaging them, they are extremely fragile and therefore it is unwise that they are returned. The British Museum must not budge!
George McAllister, England

The British have been great thieves in the past

Ronald Vopel, Belgium
While I have to admit that a general return of works of art would particularly hurt the UK, I still think that everything needs to be returned if proper display and care can be assured. The British have been great thieves in the past and they have the obligation to set things straight. It doesn't help that the marbles are displayed in a museum called "British". What is British about them?
Ronald Vopel, Belgium

In reply to Ronald who asked "What is British about them?" - how about the fellow that brought them back and ensured that they're still fit to view instead of being left to decay in the polluted atmosphere when they once stood?
Tom, England

The Elgin Marbles were left by Greece to erode until rescued. Greece has an unparalleled ancient history and has shown that it does value this. It is only when something is lost that its true value is understood. Send the Marbles home - we have enough history of our own and should make sure we appreciate that too.
Chris, UK

Yes. Bring back London Bridge. I used to be taken for walks by my mother on the old London Bridge but since it was replaced it's never been the same. BRING IT BACK.
Len Crank

I am happy to give irrelevant items up such as the Elgin Marbles and Cleopatra's Needle but where's our "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?" and "The Weakest Link"? We should never have sold any of these rights abroad. It would have made us more unique.
Chris Gower, London

If the Elgin Marbles should go back to Greece then surely all works of art should go back to their country of origin? If not, then what's the distinction between a piece of artwork that should be repatriated and a piece that need not be? Until this matter has been clarified I see no reason why the British Museum should pay any attention to this old issue.
Richard N, UK

Richard N shows great ignorance. Although undoubtedly the Elgin Marbles are a work of art they are first and formost part of the history and culture of Greece and as such they should be returned. They were removed without the consent of the people that matter - the Greeks themselves. Although their removal at the time has undoubtedly saved them from destruction, Greece is now in a position to give them the care and attention they deserve.
Michael, UK

There are certain pieces of British origin housed around the world, why not return them?

Mark, England
I agree with Richard - surely this will set a precedent for all works of art to be restored to their natural origin? There are certain pieces of British origin housed around the world in Italy and America, why not return them? It is a futile argument because Greece was not even a state when these Marbles existed in their original context, and they certainly wouldn't be around today if it was not for Lord Elgin.
Mark, England

See also:

18 Jan 02 | Europe
Nations squabble over antiquities
15 Jan 02 | Arts
Elgin Marbles 'staying' in UK
22 Jun 01 | Arts
Greece steps up marbles fight
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