Post #346 • August 16, 2004, 4:57 PM • 1 Comment
I've never known what side to come down on regarding the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece. My feelings heretofore were that their removal to England saved them, in the end, from neglect and acid rain. That may well be true, but today I learn that Elgin was, well, a scoundrel. Mitch Potter for the Toronto Star (via, of course, ArtsJournal):
...the darkest chapter in the Parthenon's history belongs to one Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin, who used his position as Britain's ambassador to Constantinople (today's Istanbul) in a determined effort to strip the Parthenon of its sculpted treasures.
Elgin assembled a team of European draftsmen, ostensibly to create drawings and plaster cast replicas of the Parthenon marbles. But his three-year project (1801-1804) eventually devolved into a campaign of ham-fisted pillaging. Under the authority of a dubious letter Elgin claimed as permission from the ruling Ottomans, hundreds of crates of marble were shipped to England, including nearly 90 metres of the continuous band of sculpted frieze around the Parthenon.
Almost immediately upon seizing possession, Elgin's luck turned foul in a fashion later described by poet Lord Byron as "the curse of Athena." His marriage dissolved upon his return to Britain, and with it, access to his wife's fortune. Elgin eventually fled to Paris in failing heath, heavy debt and widely despised for the manner in which the Greek treasures came into his hands.
Yet the British government agreed, after an investigation into the issue, to purchase the marbles from Elgin for the agreed upon sum of 35,000 and a commitment to present them in perpetuity as the Elgin Marbles. That remains their name today at the British Museum, where they remain the highlight for many of the six million people who visit the museum each year.
This changes my feelings. It looks like that despite some posturing both sides, an agreement is in the works to repatriate the marbles in a manner that gives tons of credit to British Museum. That sounds about right.