To the Editor:
As an attorney who has fought for the repatriation of Indian sacred objects, I was appalled by Nigel Nicolson’s review of Theodore Vrettos’s book ”The Elgin Affair” (Jan. 4). The review reads like a litany of every unconvincing excuse collectors have employed for generations to justify possession of works of art and sacred objects that are the patrimony of other cultures.
Nicolson argues that the sculptures were not removed by ”dishonest means or stealth,” but admits that bribes were paid to Turkish officials. And by what right, except that of illegal occupier, did Turkish officials permit Elgin to export the Parthenon marbles? Nor is Nicolson’s claim that the marbles were better protected in the British Museum than ”high up on the Parthenon” relevant to their return to Greece today — there can be no question that Greece will safeguard them.
Underlying Nicolson’s arguments seems to lurk his belief that the sculptures are best appreciated by the English and best displayed by them as well. Nicolson likes having such works of art in British and American museums and in his own garden, where he has five Greek marble altars.
The point is that no matter Elgin’s motives, good or bad, the sculptures are probably the single most important work of Greek art and symbolic of one nation’s plunder of another. The sculptures, along with Nicolson’s altars, ought to be immediately repatriated.
Michael Ratner, New York
Text of Opinion
Losing Their Marbles
By NIGEL NICOLSON
The Elgin Affair: The Abduction of Antiquity’s Greatest Treasures and the Passions It Aroused
By Theodore Vrettos
Illustrated. 238 pp. New York:
Arcade Publishing. $26.95.
Two summers ago I joined a group of tourists on the Acropolis at Athens and listened to the Greek guide’s lecture to us on the glories of the Parthenon. She tactfully avoided comment on the removal of its sculptures by Lord Elgin in 1800-3, apart from appealing to her audience (mainly British) to call them the ”Parthenon marbles,” not the ”Elgin marbles.” ”That’s not your only complaint,” one of us generously said: ”You want them back.” ”Yes, we want them back!” she cried, her discretion abandoned, the wrath of Athena flashing from her lovely eyes.
The arguments for returning the sculptures from London to Athens have many times been rehearsed, and never better than in ”The Elgin Affair,” by Theodore Vrettos. Lord Byron led the way in his poem ”Childe Harold,” followed by the eloquent Melina Mercouri when she was Greek Minister of Culture in the 1980’s. Both accused Elgin of vandalism — but wrongly, for vandalism implies destruction, and the sculptures have been better protected against neglect and weather than they would have been if they had remained high up on the Parthenon’s walls.
The Turks, who then occupied Greece, cared little about its past. They deliberately destroyed the little temple of Athena Nike on the Acropolis to make room for their artillery; they used the Parthenon as an ammunition dump, which exploded, doing irreparable damage; and they allowed tourists to take their pick of the remains. It was from further destruction and pillage that Lord Elgin, the British Ambassador in Constantinople, was determined to save them. Even the Greeks, he said, could not be trusted with their heritage: they ”have looked upon the superb works of Pheidias with ingratitude and indifference. They do not deserve them!”
For ”vandalism,” then, let us substitute the word ”theft.” But even this is disputable, for Lord Elgin obtained from the Turks three official permits (firmans) to sketch, remove and export the marbles, and he paid Turkish officials handsomely in bribes. He did so at his own expense, and although he eventually sold the marbles to the British Government, it was for half what they had cost him, and he died in abject poverty. The British Museum, which acquired them, has never felt guilty about the transaction. Nor have successive Governments when importuned by the Greeks for their return. In 1941 the head of the Foreign Office minuted, ”They were actually acquired in a manner no more disreputable then many of the contents of European and American museums.” If there is a hint of remorse in that remark, it was echoed in the 1980’s by the Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock, who said that if he became Prime Minister he would return the marbles to Greece. His successor as head of Labor, Prime Minister Tony Blair, has not underwritten that promise.
Vrettos, in the subtitle to his excellent book, uses the word ”abduction,” which at first suggested to me that he considered that the marbles had been removed by dishonest means or stealth, but in fact his narrative is free from prejudice and remarkably sympathetic to Lord Elgin. He quotes at length the arguments for and against restitution but does not come down firmly on either side. In fact, there is rather too little about plans the Greeks have made to receive the marbles if they are restored to them, and about the excellent conditions in which they are displayed in London. Nor does he discuss the precedent such restoration would set: every nation would lay claim to its ”abducted” treasures. The Metropolitan and the British Museum would be stripped.
Vrettos, an American writer, is an excellent anecdotist. He quotes enough from original documents to confirm their authenticity and paraphrases the rest, scintillatingly. He gives us a detailed account of the dismantling and transport of the sculptures, but the main narrative concerns Elgin himself, his embassy to Constantinople, his happy (later disastrous) marriage and his struggles to win acceptance and financial compensation for his loot.
He is fortunate in his sources. Lady Elgin’s letters are graphic and often funny (”Talleyrand’s fragile body was held together only by his tight-fitting clothes”); the official dispatches were written with a freedom and elegance rare in modern times; and Byron’s poems denouncing Elgin and his descendants are mercilessly bitter:
First on the head of him who did this deed
My curse shall light — on him and all his seed;
Without one spark of intellectual fire,
Be all the sons as senseless as the sire!
At the end of the book Vrettos finds room for the transcript of the trial in Edinburgh of one of Elgin’s secretaries, charged with committing adultery with Lady Elgin. You may call this irrelevant, but it adds sparkle to an enthralling story.
Let us remember that Elgin was not alone in what he did. Napoleon sent agents to Athens to acquire vases, statues and bas-reliefs from every part of the city, including the Acropolis. I have in my own garden five marble altars an ancestor pinched from Delos in 1820. And Elgin’s motive was a genuine love of antiquity. He not only wished to save the marbles but to exhibit them as an inspiration to the British. Keats, for example, visited them again and again; his friend the artist Joseph Severn said he would sit beside them an hour or more, ”rapt in revery.”
Elgin’s reward for his trouble? It is disheartening to read of the sadness the affair caused him. His adjutants let him down badly, but not without cause, for he failed to pay their salaries. The Turks reneged on promises to leave him a free hand. One of his ships sank in midpassage (but the marbles were saved). He was constantly ridiculed for the enterprise that benefited his country so greatly. During his journey home he was taken prisoner in France, on Napoleon’s orders. His wife deserted him. His nose was eaten away by an infection, leaving an ugly smear. His pitiable condition — which disfigured him more than time and accident had done to many of his statues — may have been one cause of his wife’s infidelities, but it can also stand as a symbol of his blighted career. The current Lord Elgin has said he dares not visit Greece under his real name, and he is sorry his great-great-grandfather ever saw those ”bloody stones.” Vrettos’s verdict is more generous, and truer.
Nigel Nicolson’s most recent book is his autobiography, ”Long Life.”