Zareer Masani

The Elgin marbles and the rot of ‘decolonisation’

(Photo: Getty Images)

The proposed return to Greece, in the guise of loans, of some of the British Museum’s most iconic objects, the Elgin marbles, is a measure of how far the ‘decolonisation’ campaign has gone in brainwashing the guardians of our cultural heritage. There’s little doubt that the Greek government, which still claims rightful ownership, will never willingly return such a loan, and we all know that possession is nine-tenths of the law.

The current deal, designed to circumvent rules preventing British museums from giving away our national treasures, has been brokered by former culture minister Lord Vaizey and ex-chancellor George Osborne, now Chair of the British Museum, but its details have yet to be revealed. What is remarkably absent from it so far are any guarantees of the loan being returned or, despite claims to reciprocity, precisely what equivalent Greek artefacts we’ll be getting in exchange.

The legality of Greek claims to the marbles are dubious at best

The legality of Greek claims to the marbles are dubious at best. The friezes from the Parthenon at Athens, built mostly by slaves in 500 BC, were allegedly ‘stolen’ by the art-collecting, antiquarian Earl of Elgin in 1802, while he was British Ambassador to Constantinople. The Parthenon at the time was a neglected ruin in the Ottoman Empire, then the internationally recognised ruler of what is now Greece, which had no legal existence as a state until 30 years later. The Parthenon had been used as an ammunition dump and badly damaged by explosions. When Lord Elgin arrived, the site was being cannibalised by Turkish dragomen selling off bits as souvenirs to tourists.

Elgin acquired the marbles quite legally, with official permission from the Ottoman government, shipped them to London at a personal cost of £5 million in today’s money and later sold them, again quite legally, to the British government, who donated them to the British Museum.

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Written by
Zareer Masani
Dr Zareer Masani is a historian and the author of Macaulay: Britain's Liberal Imperialist. He is on the advisory panel of Policy Exchange’s History Matters Project

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