Losing 'Our' Marbles: The Current Economic Crisis in Greece Has Drawn Attention Once Again to the Question of Where Best to Display Treasures Such as the Elgin Marbles. Jonathan Downs Offers Some Solutions to a Historical Tug of War

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The debate on the return of ancient artefacts to their countries of origin is far from over. The economic crisis in Greece has bolstered the case against handing back the Elgin, or Parthenon, Marbles. Can Greece, in its present condition, take care of them properly? The same is wondered of Egypt when it calls for the return of the Rosetta Stone.

The financial chaos now gripping the birthplace of democracy is perceived as evidence of a deeper malaise. Yet the Greeks were ruined partly by their need to borrow money to stage the 2004 Olympics and also to pay for the massive project to redevelop Athens. What had been a frenetic city, blighted by delayed construction, choked with pollution and imperilled by madcap taxi drivers, became a 21st-century Euro-capital the equal of anything north of the Alps. But financial problems escalated due to poor tax-collection and the reluctance of the wealthy to pay tax.

To argue against handing back the Elgin Marbles because Greece cannot pay its bills presupposes Britain is in much better shape. However, government cuts and the foreclosures and fallout from the banking crisis tell a different story. On the other hand, to return such treasures would be the greatest boost a nation such as Greece could receive. The New Acropolis Museum sold 11,000 tickets in its first five days of opening in June 2009 and its website had 260,000 hits worldwide. It had over 90,000 visitors in the first week. These numbers would increase with the return of the marbles, providing a national focus for a stricken economy.

The supposition that only northern Europeans or Americans are capable of preserving everyone else's history is something of a pricked balloon: harsh copper chisels and carborundum stone were used in an unauthorised cleaning of Elgin's collection, which took place in 1937-38. The action ruined the 2,400-year-old patina on the figures, in some cases changing the sculptures' form. It was London soot which darkened the Rosetta Stone as it stood exposed for decades in the foyer entrance of the British Museum. It was not moved to its current protective case until 1999. Neither example compares favourably with the proper care demanded of other nations.

For all the finger-pointing, however, most arguments avoid the fundamental fact: these items are not 'ours' and the nations concerned would like them back. Lord Elgin (1766-1841), British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople between 1799 and 1803, obtained a licence, or firman, from the Ottomans who controlled Greece at the time. He sought to record the Acropolis site in Athens with the help of the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Lusieri (c.1755-1821) and then removed various pieces for shipment to Britain. The legality of this episode has long been questioned. There is no doubt that Elgin saw such removals partly as rescue; the site was being slowly consumed by frequent fires and theft. Yet there was outcry even then from observers such as the mineralogist Dr Edward Daniel Clarke (1769-1822) at the sight of Elgin's men hacking at the Parthenon friezes. In the voyage home, some pieces were lost at sea and had to be dredged to the surface. The final bill in 1812 for the operation reached some 75,000 [pounds sterling], nearly 4 million [pounds sterling] in today's money, and Elgin sold his collection to the British Museum for less than it cost him to acquire it. It is this purchase which yielded a legal receipt for the statuary: thus the marbles were bought 'in good faith'.

The case of the Rosetta Stone is more complex, though it too is held legally in Britain by the tenuous dictate of a 200-year-old Ottoman signature. …