Sarcophagus Fragment, Roman, ca. 240-250 CE, The Art Institute of Chicago

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Greece to Britain: Hand over artwork

Not bloody likely! This is an issue that has been around for quiet a while and is not going away any time soon. The issue of provenance is a touchy subject in the antiquities world at best. The dealings in allegedly stolen artifacts has plagued many museums and collectors is this county and abroad, and the problem, though diminishing, seems to be here to stay. That said, the Elgin Marbles present a different case. We know where they came from, when they where taken and who took them. The Elgin Marbles are not a few red figure vases dug up in some field and smuggle out of the county, they are part of the most famous and visible symbol of Greece, the Parthenon. Greece wants them back, and who can blame them. But, Britain says it acquired them fair and square, which it did. Here is where is starts to get complicated. To make a long story short, I don't believe that we will see the Elgin Marbles returned to Greece in the foreseeable future. And maybe they shouldn't. Just because a modern state happens to occupy an ancient land, does that give the right of ownership to that ancient culture's legacy? It's a very touchy subject and I'm not exactly sure where I stand. The modern state of Greece is not ancient Greece. "Ancient Greece" didn't even exist. It was a collection of city states that had numerous and ever changing alliances with each other. Does the modern Greece get to lay claim to all artifacts found withing it's present borders? Do Athenian and Spartan and Cypriot artifacts all get to be claimed by "Greece?" If so, Britain has the right to keep the Elgin Marbles, for once upon a time England was part of the Roman Empire, as was Greece. They were all part of the same "country" back then, so why shouldn't Greek artifacts reside in Britain? I know that's flawed logic, but you see my point. When we try to "own" history, someone is always left out. Greece wants the Elgin Marbles back as a matter of pride, Britain wants to keep them as a matter of stubbornness. In the end, we are arguing over the very thing we should be sharing with each other, our vast and wonderful history.