World

Will Britain Lose Its Marbles?

Greece scores points in the long struggle over Lord Elgin’s treasures

Barry Came December 13 1999
World

Will Britain Lose Its Marbles?

Greece scores points in the long struggle over Lord Elgin’s treasures

Barry Came December 13 1999

Will Britain Lose Its Marbles?

Greece scores points in the long struggle over Lord Elgin’s treasures

World

Barry Came

As a pleasant spot for lunch, the choice may well have been appropriate. What better place to serve tea and sandwiches to a host of hungry historians than the British Museums Elgin Gallery? The room is large, more than capable of accommodating the 200 invitees. And adorning the walls are Lord Elgin’s famous Marbles, the same 2,500-year-old Greek sculptures the international scholars had gathered in London to examine and debate. But there were many in the luncheon crowd last week who found the entire affair outrageous. Nary a drop of tea nor a nibble of egg salad passed the tight lips of any of the assembled members of the Greek delegation. “Not the brightest of ideas,” muttered Constantinos Bitsios, charge d’affaires of London’s Greek Embassy, “disrespectful and tacdess in the extreme.” More succinct yet was Athenian writer and journalist Eleni Bistika: “It stinks.”

The Greeks’ ire had been excited not only by the sight of people “scoffing food,” as Bistika complained, in close proximity to one of Greece’s precious national treasures. It was also the result of a blistering attack launched earlier in the day by Ian Jenkins, the British Museum’s assistant keeper of Greek and Roman antiquities. Some of the classical world’s finest works “still rot on the Parthenon as I speak,” Jenkins asserted, laying the blame squarely on Greek authorities in charge of protection. “Rotting is a very hard word that makes me very angry,” retorted Ismini Trianti, director of the Acropolis museum in Athens. “The subject of this conference is not what we have done in Greece—

but what the British have done to Greek antiquities here in London.”

On that count, as the symposium revealed, the British have a case to answer—at least over Lord Elgin’s celebrated Marbles. Originally, the museum convened the two-day conference in hopes of cooling the mounting ardour in the long batde for control of the works. They were fashioned by the sculptor Phidias in the fabled 5 th century BC, when the arts flowered under Athenian ruler Pericles. Fearing they could be damaged in the conflict between the Greeks and the Turks, art connoisseur and diplomat Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, had them removed from the walls of the Parthenon in 1801 and transported to

England over the next 11 years. His action was deeply controversial at the time—Lord Byron assailed him in his poem The Curse of Minerva—but a parliamentary committee ultimately exonerated him.

Since 1983, successive Greek governments have campaigned for the return of the Marbles, maintaining that they rightfully belong back on the temple that still sits atop the Acropolis overlooking Athens. The British have resisted, arguing that Elgin’s move saved the Marbles from certain destruction by vandals and the elements. Their continued preservation, the British claim, is best guaranteed by remaining under the care of the British Museum, where the Marbles have rested since 1816.

Recent evidence suggests, however, that the museum has not been as careful a custodian as it should have—nor as honest. Last year, William St. Clair, a 61-year-old Cambridge University historian and archeological sleuth, published Lord Elgin and the Marbles, a

sensational account of “irreparable damage” inflicted on “80 per cent” of the sculptures and friezes in the 1930s, followed by 60 years of bureaucratic cover-up, including outright lies to three British prime ministers. St. Clair claims that many of the Marbles were “skinned” in the late ’30s by unskilled

workers wielding hammer and chisel to remove stained patina and the last traces of the original painted decoration. The action was taken at the urging of Lord Duveen, a wealthy art dealer who was financing a new gallery for the Marbles and wanted them to appear “whiter than white.” The results of an internal museum inquiry, conducted in 1939, were never published, apparently to protect the careers and reputations of the museum’s directors.

St. Clair’s accusations have fuelled the debate over the ultimate fate of the Marbles. The Greek government eagerly seized upon his findings. But it was not until last week that the British Museum’s authorities finally agreed that, at least in part, St. Clair’s account was accurate. “The way Duveen went about cleaning the sculptures was a scandal,” Jenkins acknowledged to the symposium delegates. “The way the museum tried and failed to cover it up was a scandal.” He admitted that Sir John Forsdyke, museum director in the 1930s, had deliberately hushed up the extent of the Duveen “cleaning” in order “to save his own neck.”

At the same time, however, Jenkins said St. Clair’s claims were exaggerated. Rather than 80 per cent of the Marbles suffering damage, only 40 per cent had been “affected,” he said. And far from assuaging Greek indignation, Jenkins exacerbated it by accusing the Greek authorities of using St. Clair’s charges to buttress their campaign to regain control of the Marbles. Even more, he claimed the damage suffered by antiquities in Greek control was much worse than anything Duveen could have devised. “The continued deterioration of the [Parthenon’s] west frieze,” he charged, “and the spoiling of all the Acropolis sculptures exposed to acid rain, is the greatest of all tragedies.”

If the symposium was designed to cool tempers, it failed. To members of the Greek delegation, the gallery lunch itself was a calculated insult, a reminder of recent scandals over the museum charging deep-pocketed corporate clients as much as $75,000 a night to rent the Elgin Gallery for masquerade balls, complete with toga. “Those stories were a big issue back in Greece,” said chargé Bitsios.

In the end, the symposium may simply have added momentum to the growing sentiment, even in Britain, to send Lord Elgin’s Marbles back to where they came from. Once again, a parliamentary committee is on the case. A select group of MPs has been studying the possibility of a return, perhaps early in the new millennium or for the opening of the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004. If that comes to pass, the British Museum will have to find another use for the Elgin Gallery— perhaps as a restaurant. ESI