Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Return of the Euphronios Krater and the Elgin Marbles

Euphronios Krater, Greek c. 515 BC

Two issues can arise round culturally significant objects - their possible illegal excavation and exportation, and their appropriate ownership and location in this day and age. These issues of course are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

To the first issue. The Euphronios Krater (Greece, c.515 BC), claimed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to have been purchased in 1972 in good faith, depicts exquisitely painted Homeric scenes.

Euphronios Krater - 'Side' A

Euphronios Krater - 'Side' A Detail

Euphronios Krater - 'Side' B

Italian authorities declared the krater was illegally removed from Cerveteri, north of Rome. The krater was recently returned to Italy, the carrot facilitating this was Italian archaeological digging rights, and ownership of finds, for the Metropolitan Museum. Fairly straight forward and a good outcome!

To the second issue. There is a hard-argued, often heated and on-going international debate as to whether or not important artifacts of antiquity that are of great cultural significance should be returned to their place of origin and greatest significance. Even if legally acquired or purchased in the past. The argument for return is that such objects are indissolubly tied to national and cultural identity. Galleries and museums, if the current owners, usually do not want to surrender their crowd-pulling treasures.

I'd like to consider the cases of the Elgin Marbles and the Pergamon Alter.

The Elgin Marbles were removed from the Parthenon between 1801 and 1812 and sent to the British Museum, with Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, gaining permission for the action from the Ottoman (non-Greek Turkish occupying) authorities in Athens.

Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin

These marbles are sculptures from the two pediments or triangular spaces above the front and rear of the building, and many of the deeply carved single panels (or metopes) and many of the bas-relief panels of the continuous processional frieze above the columns and around the four sides of the building.

Sculpture from East Pediment

One Metope - One of the Scenes of the Battles of Lapiths and Centuars

Two Panels of the Processional Frieze

The marbles were housed in a new purpose-built wing at the museum, the Duveen Gallery.

The Duveen Gallery, British Museum

There have been a number of arguments fielded for the marbles remaining in London. That they have been rescued from certain deterioration had they remained in Athens. That they have been better cared for and restored. That they are open to all the world to view and appreciate.

Such arguments may have had some validity in the past but now do not seem relevant - just seem spurious and self-interested. The marbles would be housed and cared for within an inch of their lives in Greece. Some things are of such global importance that they should have funding from beyond the borders of the country in which they are located, such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the Karnak Complex at Luxor in Egypt. Ease of international travel would make them readily accessible. And so on, and so on.

There is now talk by some in Britain of a permanent loan. Heading towards a good outcome?

The same arguments surround the Pergamon Altar, 170 BC, Turkey, now in the Pergamonmuseum, Berlin.

Pergamon Altar, formerly Turkey, now Berlin - Detail

The real fear of many museums and galleries is that anyone acceding will set a precedent. And there will be a run on many of 'acquisitions'.

What do you guys think?


  1. Current possessors of such antiquities obtained them through imperial power. Been that way all throughout history. Take a look at the obelisks which Rome took from Egypt, and which still remain in Rome. There is a logical tilt to the claim that the treasures need to be where they originated. I really can't decide.

  2. They can't take care of what they have (from the NY Times).

    January 19, 2008
    Scandal Steals Spotlight in Greek Culture Ministry
    ATHENS — Even as Greece lauds its success in reclaiming ancient classical treasures from museums abroad, a scandal has arisen over its oversight of its archaeological past.

    This week Greece’s culture minister, Michalis Liapis, pruned the powers of the country’s new archaeology chief, Theodoros Dravillas, after the dismissal and suicide attempt of the politician who preceded him in that post.

    Christos Zachopoulos, the former secretary general of the Greek Culture Ministry and chairman of the Central Archaeological Council, jumped off the balcony of his fourth-floor home here last month after allegations that he was being blackmailed by his former office assistant, with whom he had had an affair. Mr. Zachopoulos, 54, survived the fall. But what began as a sex scandal has evolved into a political one that is being closely watched across the country. Mr. Zachopoulos was appointed to his post in 2004 by Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis, a friend.

    Mr. Zachopoulos’s former assistant has been detained while awaiting trial on charges of attempted blackmail, and Athens investigators have opened an inquiry into the former archaeology chief’s handling of ministry finances.

    An Athens prosecutor is also examining at least 10 of an estimated 200 cases in which Mr. Zachopoulos, in his capacity as the head of the Central Archaeological Council, decreed that places could be removed from the list of protected archaeological sites.

  3. hey anon, thanks for the sending 'They can't take care of what they have'. things can and will go wrong in this respect but, to me, this doesn't seem to negate the general principle of objects of great cultural importance and significance being in their place of origin. this is an example the instance that should not define the general course of action. corruption needs to be sorted. it exists everywhere - in Britain Sotherby's has recently been caught up in a scandal involving auctioning artifacts they knewn to be illegally taken from their country of origin. thanks again for the comment!

  4. yep publius100, they are often the 'trophies' of a colonial past. i think there needs to be a case by case approach - can't see a 'one solution fixes all' working. it seems to me that only things of the greatest significance should be considered for return. in practical terms i couldn't imagine museums round the world being cleared out of everything save objects of local significance.