For many years I have had a side interest in the recovery and the return of the cultural patrimony of peoples, tribes and nations. I have only litigated one case to recover ancient Aymara textiles for a Bolivian town, Coroma. That story is wonderful, beautiful and moving. You can read more about here: The Recovery of the Aymara Textiles (http://culturalheritage.state.gov/aymara.html).
I am writing about this now because I recently saw that the demand for the Elgin marbles (much of the Parthenon Frieze) is being pressed by Greece. They are currently in the British Museum. Greece now has a new museum at the foot of the Parthenon and has assembled white plaster copies of what should be the originals. To the extent there was ever an excuse that Greece would not care for the returned frieze(an excuse I never accepted), that excuse is over. There is now a fine, new museum in Greece for the Elgin marbles.
Over ten years ago the NYT reviewed a book about the marbles and book as well as the reviewer gave a lot credibility to England’s case for keeping the Parthenon Frieze. I responded strongly to that review in a letter the NYT published in its weekly book review. That letter sets forth some of the issues and why there is really only one side to this question: the Elgin marbles must be returned. The letter from 1998 is below:
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.