A high-stakes game of pinball

here we go again. Debate over the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum – whether they should be sent back to Greece, where there is a gleaming dedicated museum overlooking the Acropolis, where Lord Elgin removed the sculpture from 1801-05 Unscrew there – seems to go on forever.

In the 1980s, then-Greek Culture Minister Melina Mercouri launched an impassioned campaign for their return; she never stopped trying until her death in 1994. Greece’s formal request to the UK Parliament was rejected – but it has remained open since.More than a decade ago, my then-colleague Peter Aspden, himself half-Greek and an avid returner, proposed in this paper a well-thought-out Practical plan These include lending and sharing arrangements, as well as comprehensive face-saving ownership structures. It could have saved a lot of trouble – but some people just don’t listen, don’t they?

This time, Jonathan Williams, deputy director of the British Museum, raised the issue again after making a super cautious statement about a possible new “cultural exchange” deal for Parthenon sculptures. Professor Nicholas Stampolidis, Director of the Acropolis Museum. The latter reacted much more strongly, escalating the debate to a global scale: “The issue of sculpture is not bilateral, it is an issue of international and Western culture, not only of Europe, but also of… . . in all democracies country,” Stapledis said.

Marble sculptures from the Parthenon are found in many places—museums in the Louvre, Vatican, Copenhagen, Vienna and Munich—but the most important is the collection of the British Museum. Not only in terms of numbers, but also in the sheer immorality and arrogance of their prey.

In each of the multiple reparations and repatriation cases that are now so frequent around the world, this aspect – the way it happens – gives a powerful weight to the right and wrong involved. But these cases are sometimes extremely complex, leaving lawyers at a loss.

When it comes to legal rather than emotional or moral aspects, the aspect of returning claims, antiquities and ancient artifacts is often simpler. The Parthenon Marbles are probably the clearest case: they answered all the test questions. We know where, when and how they were originally removed. There are no gaps in the ownership chain to raise suspicion. And we know that if (should I say when) they are returned, they will be well looked after.

It’s not always that simple. Some items do not actually have an established origin, manufacturer or original owner. Some restitution claims refer to the location of “modern finds”: where they were excavated, purchased or even stolen, not where they were created. These unresolved artifacts may pose the biggest problems for museum staff facing claims.

However, despite all the resistance from the museum, despite the costs and difficulties, despite the tears, troubles and wars of words, the rate of return has been proceeding at a fairly rapid pace over the past few years.

Last year in the United States, an ancient Gilgamesh stele was returned to Iraq, more than 100 artifacts were returned to Pakistan, and Ethiopia received important items looted by British troops in the 1860s. These and many similar items were recovered by officials after they were found traded in lively but often shady antique markets, the proceeds of theft, modern robberies or unscrupulous dealings.

Germany has been doing well, returning items to its former colonial territory in present-day Namibia and announcing the return to its Benin bronzes; The Netherlands and Belgium also made a series of goodwill moves. French Senate votes to return 27 important cultural relics in 2020 Benin and Senegal.

This all sounds very right, correct and optimistic. But, as Alexander Herman points out in his recent book, these artifacts, no matter how precious, have meanings that go far beyond them. Return: The return of cultural relics.

In 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron made a striking statement in Burkina Faso – a comprehensive commitment to return all illegally acquired African art in French museums – More than just art and antiques in his mind. He is deploying cultural soft power in some fairly obvious ways. Correct past mistakes, yes. But it also uses restitution as a way of reaffirming its country’s status in Francophone Africa, advocating a clean break with colonial past, and establishing new economic and diplomatic ties based on goodwill. As Hermann puts it: “The goal of expanding France’s sphere of influence is well served by engaging with African countries on restitution.”

Herman also talked about China. China (and its millionaire elite) has been steadily recovering art and cultural objects taken by foreign invaders and adventurers, often through the market rather than through official repatriation claims. However, the war of restitution also works through other channels.

According to Herman, “The impressive new museum in Dakar, Senegal now houses returned material from France? 35 million euros from China paid. . . It should be added that the port of Dakar is on the African continent. Important deepwater transportation hub in the west end.”

What’s more, Chinese President Xi Jinping dabbled in the Parthenon debate when he visited Greece in 2019, staunchly supporting the returnees’ cause. It was a diplomatically shrewd move, Herman said: it was a good idea to be friendly to the Greeks on cultural issues “when the Chinese-owned port of Piraeus is so important to China’s trade with Europe”.

This particular game of pinball seems to have some unwritten rules. Today’s quarrels over stone or metal can have a vivid impact on the future.

Jan Daly is the art editor of the Financial Times

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