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Editorial: Treasure hunt

Sense should rule sentiment on antiquities

Thursday, June 08, 2000

Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou visited London this week to try to persuade the British to do something they have been unwilling to do for almost two centuries - return the Elgin Marbles, priceless antiquities taken from the Parthenon. The Greek quest elicits sympathy; at the same time, British obstinacy deserves understanding.

The collection of sculptures and frieze panels were acquired - some say looted - by Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, who got permission from the Turks to carry off some of the artifacts early in the 19th century.

His acquisition was controversial from the start, and Lord Elgin was denounced by such critics as the English poet Lord Byron, who before he died in the cause of Greek independence, penned "Childe Harold," which includes a reference to the "dull spoiler" who had defaced one of the wonders of the world. Lord Elgin eventually sold his collection to the British government in 1816, and it was placed in the British Museum.

There it remains - an entrancing exhibit that is hugely popular. While not too much can be said for Lord Elgin's actions in light of modern sensibilities, perhaps that is part of the point. He was a man of his time, distinguished from other antiquity seekers by the size of his ambition.

Whether he bribed, flattered or stole, Lord Elgin did, in fact, help awaken Britain and the rest of the world to the glories of antiquity.

About half of the surviving Marbles are still in Greece. If the remaining artifacts are ever returned, the Greek government promises to house them in a new Acropolis Museum. One consequence of British possession has been to keep them out of the polluted air in Athens that has forced an expensive renovation of the Parthenon.

Prime Minister Tony Blair - unlike previous leaders of the Labor Party - is opposed to the return of the Marbles. But his government has allowed the creation of a parliamentary committee to look into the whole question of possession of foreign treasures. It is possible that the committee might propose a return of the Marbles.

That would entail a second-guessing of decisions made by generations long since passed. But it also would have repercussions for the present and the future. Every major museum in the world - and especially the British - has a hoard of exhibits acquired through ancient dubious means.

The danger of setting a precedent is well illustrated by foreign reaction to the inquiries of the parliamentary committee. Indians are already demanding the return of treasures taken by the British Raj, including the Koh-i-Noor diamond, part of the Crown Jewels. Kuldip Nayar, an Indian lawmaker, was quoted by The (London) Daily Telegraph as saying: "If the British can consider returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece, why not send back the Koh-i-Noor to India?"

That's the problem. Prime Minister Blair would be well advised to remain obstinate.

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