Martin Gayford

Bones of contention

All over the world, scholarly folk look to Neil MacGregor — who writes opposite — to hold the line.

Text settings

All over the world, scholarly folk look to Neil MacGregor — who writes opposite — to hold the line.

All over the world, scholarly folk look to Neil MacGregor — who writes opposite — to hold the line. If the British Museum gave in and sent the Elgin Marbles air freight to Athens, a massive wave of demands for restitution would descend on the museums of the Western world.

The sad fact is that very large numbers of antiquities reached our cultural institutions by means that were highly dubious. In recent decades, many have been illegally excavated and smuggled on to the art market. An ex-antiquities curator at the Getty is currently on trial in Italy on charges arising from that trade. Last February, the Metropolitan Museum agreed to return 21 prized antiquities to Italy, including a celebrated vase signed by the painter Euphronios. It is unlikely to be the last such surrender.

There are some who argue that only objects with a provenance — that is, a history of legal ownership — should be either collected or published. In an interview in the latest issue of Apollo, the distinguished historian of classical art Professor Sir John Boardman — while condemning illegal activity — attacks that notion as reminiscent of ‘fanatical animal rights activists’. The Euphronios vase, he suggests, did much more cultural good in New York — however it got there — than it did buried in an ancient tomb.

Perhaps, but then the removal of antiquities from their sites can and could be a destructive business — and has led to lasting resentment. In his excellent book Salonica, Mark Mazower tells an instructive story about the golden age of museum collecting. In 1864, an itinerant French savant named Emmanuel Miller was combing what is now north-eastern Greece for items suitable for the museums of Paris. One of the most celebrated antiquities of Salonica — then part of the Ottoman Empire — was a series of eight classical statues supported on a colonnade of Corinthian columns. This was built into the wall of a house in the Jewish quarter of the city, and known as ‘Las Incantadas’ — Spanish for ‘the Enchanted Ones’ — since many of the Jews of the city had come from Spain.

These sculptures — though stunningly beautiful in their situation, as old views reveal — were not optimally cared for. The Janissary troops used to shoot at them as an entertainment. How much better, Miller reflected, would they be appreciated in Paris! It was, as Mazower notes, ‘the usual justification’. Miller obtained permission from the Sultan to remove the statues, and instructions from France to take the whole monument — which he accordingly demolished.

At that point, he encountered problems. The local people were outraged, an angry crowd gathered in the streets. It was difficult to transport the huge slabs of marble through the streets. Finally, word came from Paris that sufficient shipping was not available, so Miller was obliged to leave large chunks of Las Incantadas in the streets, and they immediately disappeared.

Sadly, when they finally arrived in the Louvre, the surviving pieces were muddled with others he had excavated on Thassos, and eventually dispersed through the collection. So, as a result of Miller’s efforts, what was once — in Mazower’s words — ‘perhaps the most striking antiquity’ in Salonica had entirely disappeared.

There were similar cases. A few years ago I was shown round the Pyramid of Mycerinus — or Menkaure — by assistants of Dr Zahi Hawass, the redoubtable head of Egypt’s antiquities council. Eventually, we entered the burial chamber of the Pharaoh, only to find, instead of his sarcophagus, a ragged hole in the floor. Where was it? I asked. ‘Stolen by the British in 1837,’ came the answer smartly back. ‘And lost at sea.’ It’s true.

Now, you can argue, as A.N. Wilson did a few weeks ago in the Daily Telegraph, that those Westerners who carried off beautiful things from foreign lands ‘nearly always’ did so out of ‘a motive of love for the objects themselves’. But is that an excuse? If somebody swiped a painting from my living-room wall — even out of artistic passion — I would still ring up the police.

That’s how the Egyptians feel. It’s too late for the Sarcophagus of Menkaure (though, if the wreck were found, one wonders whether the BM would have the nerve to claim it); but not for many other objects. In the latest edition of the magazine Art News, Dr Hawass reels off a list of items — all looted by the standards of 2006 — which the Egyptians would like back. It includes the Rosetta Stone, owned by the British Museum, the Dendera zodiac from the Louvre, and the bust of Nefertiti from Berlin.

These are all different cases, but the last of these is compelling. Nefertiti was excavated in 1912 by German archaeologists, working on the understanding that the Cairo Museum could choose the best of the finds. But the director of the Egyptian archaeological service never saw Nefertiti — apparently because she was covered in a layer of mud (with deliberate intent to deceive, in the Egyptian view). If the director — a Frenchman named Pierre Lacau — had seen it, obviously he would have selected it. So why shouldn’t it go back now?

Well, the Berlin museums can doubtless think of some good reasons. First, it was all a long time ago. The director of a great museum recently suggested to me that a statute of limitations for museum acquisitions would be a good thing. It would certainly be a relief to him and his colleagues — but it is hard to see those countries that have lost, not gained, agreeing to that.

Then, it is argued that great objects are safer in Western museums than in their countries of origin. That was, you will remember, one of Miller’s motives for removing the statues from Salonica. Nonetheless, it may be true. It was repeated recently by Kiprop Lagat, an African scholar, who stated that ‘Western museums have better facilities and the items are better taken care of there, whereas here in Africa the concept of museums and curating is a relatively new one.’ Dr Dorothy King, a British archaeologist, made a similar claim in a book about the Elgin Marbles published earlier this year.

‘Should Greece ever sort out a suitable museum display,’ Dr King wrote, ‘it might be possible to appreciate them [the Marbles] there fully one day.’ But that day will come, as it will in Cairo (the Greeks and Egyptians think it already has).

It is pointed out — quite rightly — that the great museums of the West are themselves cultural treasures of enormous value, and to break up their collections would be an act of vandalism. But, then, no human institution lasts for ever. For good or ill, the day may be coming when they stop sucking in the world’s treasures, and start handing them back.