Stella Leventoyannis Harvey

No Honour Among Thieves

A few weeks ago, I read how the British government blocked the sale of Jane Austen’s ring to singer Kelly Clarkson because they were hoping a British buyer would come along and keep the ring in Britain. "Objects associated with Austen are extremely rare," British Culture Minister Ed Vaizey said. "I hope that a U.K. buyer comes forward so this simple but elegant ring can be saved for the nation."

 The CBC article went on to say, “The U.K. regularly issues temporary holds on the export of artwork or items deemed to be national treasures, in order to give time for a domestic buyer (or buyers) to obtain them.”

I find it interesting that the British government has one set of standards for their own treasures; yet treat the artefacts of others with such incredible disrespect.

Case in point, the Parthenon Marbles, also known as the Elgin Marbles (although why a thief would warrant such notoriety is beyond me). The Greek marble sculptures, originally part of the Parthenon and other buildings of the Acropolis, were named after Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, who obtained a controversial permit from the Ottoman authorities (occupiers of Greece at the time) while he served as the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799 to 1803.

From 1801 to 1812, Lord Elgin chiselled off the sculptures that decorated the Parthenon. Later, he sold them to the British Museum after heated debates in the British Parliament about Lord Elgin’s questionable practices (British euphemism for stealing).

The debate rages on. First the British government said that the Parthenon Marbles could not be repatriated to Greece because there was no place to safely house them in Athens. Of course this would be their argument. Kind, gentle colonial power apparently only interested in protecting us from ourselves. Who protects us from them and their good intentions?

They’ve also said that the Marbles would not be displayed for public viewing if they were returned. Where will Austen’s ring be exhibited when a Brit buys it? In a museum or on someone’s finger? How many people will see it? And let’s not forget Clarkson purchased Austen’s ring. In contrast, the Marbles were stolen and damaged both in the taking, transporting and cleaning up of the artefacts.

In 2009, the new Acropolis Museum opened in Athens. It houses 10 times more than the original museum. Inside, plaster replicas of the sculptures sitting in the London museum are interspersed with original pieces Elgin left behind (not enough pockets I suppose). “The contrast between the stark white plaster and the ancient honey-colored stone has a specific purpose,” says archaeologist Naya Charmalia. “Everyone understands at once what is missing, because if you say numbers, you can't understand, but you can see how many are missing."

Now that there is a building in Athens for the Parthenon Marbles, the British government says that their museum allows more access to see them. Why wouldn’t the Acropolis museum offer the same thing? They would. And the return of the Marbles to Athens might even spawn further tourism to Greece and help its beleaguered economy. Besides, wouldn’t the Parthenon Marbles be seen best in their country of origin, with the Parthenon providing a glorious backdrop from the windows of the beautiful new Acropolis museum?

In a time when so many artefacts have been returned to their rightful owners (the Haisla Totem Pole of Kitimat was repatriated by the Swedish museum, the spoils of WWII have begun to be returned to the Jewish people, the Euphronias Krater was repatriated to Italy from the Metropolitan Museum), it is time the British government did the right thing.

But they likely won’t because the real reason they don’t want to return them is that the Parthenon Marbles produce a great deal of revenue for the British Museum. Money, for some, speaks so much louder than honour. And we all know there is no honour among thieves.

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