Magazine article The Spectator

Bones of Contention

Magazine article The Spectator

Bones of Contention

Article excerpt

All over the world, scholarly folk look to Neil MacGregor -- who writes opposite -- to hold the line. If the British Museum gave in and sent the Elgin Marbles air freight to Athens, a massive wave of demands for restitution would descend on the museums of the Western world.

The sad fact is that very large numbers of antiquities reached our cultural institutions by means that were highly dubious.

In recent decades, many have been illegally excavated and smuggled on to the art market. An ex-antiquities curator at the Getty is currently on trial in Italy on charges arising from that trade. Last February, the Metropolitan Museum agreed to return 21 prized antiquities to Italy, including a celebrated vase signed by the painter Euphronios. It is unlikely to be the last such surrender.

There are some who argue that only objects with a provenance -- that is, a history of legal ownership -- should be either collected or published. In an interview in the latest issue of Apollo, the distinguished historian of classical art Professor Sir John Boardman -- while condemning illegal activity -- attacks that notion as reminiscent of 'fanatical animal rights activists'.

The Euphronios vase, he suggests, did much more cultural good in New York -- however it got there -- than it did buried in an ancient tomb.

Perhaps, but then the removal of antiquities from their sites can and could be a destructive business -- and has led to lasting resentment. In his excellent book Salonica, Mark Mazower tells an instructive story about the golden age of museum collecting.

In 1864, an itinerant French savant named Emmanuel Miller was combing what is now north-eastern Greece for items suitable for the museums of Paris. One of the most celebrated antiquities of Salonica -- then part of the Ottoman Empire -- was a series of eight classical statues supported on a colonnade of Corinthian columns. This was built into the wall of a house in the Jewish quarter of the city, and known as 'Las Incantadas' -- Spanish for 'the Enchanted Ones' -- since many of the Jews of the city had come from Spain.

These sculptures -- though stunningly beautiful in their situation, as old views reveal -- were not optimally cared for.

The Janissary troops used to shoot at them as an entertainment. How much better, Miller reflected, would they be appreciated in Paris! It was, as Mazower notes, 'the usual justification'. Miller obtained permission from the Sultan to remove the statues, and instructions from France to take the whole monument -- which he accordingly demolished.

At that point, he encountered problems.

The local people were outraged, an angry crowd gathered in the streets. It was difficult to transport the huge slabs of marble through the streets. Finally, word came from Paris that sufficient shipping was not available, so Miller was obliged to leave large chunks of Las Incantadas in the streets, and they immediately disappeared.

Sadly, when they finally arrived in the Louvre, the surviving pieces were muddled with others he had excavated on Thassos, and eventually dispersed through the collection. So, as a result of Miller's efforts, what was once -- in Mazower's words -- 'perhaps the most striking antiquity' in Salonica had entirely disappeared.

There were similar cases. A few years ago I was shown round the Pyramid of Mycerinus -- or Menkaure -- by assistants of Dr Zahi Hawass, the redoubtable head of Egypt's antiquities council. …

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