THE Manchester Armchair Philosophers Discuss Stolen ART Treasures

THE Manchester Armchair Philosophers Discuss Stolen ART Treasures

Should Britain give the Elgin Marble statues back to Athens?


The group looked into a more specific theme than previous gatherings, which have looked at general umbrella topics such as the nature of art, and whether or not God exists.

This month we explored the sensitive issue of whether or not Britain should return art treasures and archaeological artefacts plundered in the days when we had an Empire, to the countries from which we took them, often without purchase or any kind of permission.

We introduced ourselves and picked out art objects and places we would most like to see or visit. Egypt’s pyramids and Sphinx were high on many people’s lists, along with Australia’s Barrier Reef, a museum held space shuttle in the US, though two off-World objects were listed too – the Hubble Telescope and the lunar modules abandoned b departing astronauts on the Moon.

Back down to Earth, the Hadron Collider, Flying Boat slipways round the World, the Inca Trail, the Yellowstone National Park and the ruins of Herculaneum / Pompeii were mentioned.

My own contribution was a desire to see the real Mona Lisa, rather than reproductions, postcards, prints, copies, etc.

Then it was down to the main topic itself, for which many of us, myself included, had little direct knowledge. – The main example presented for consideration was the case of the Elgin Marbles.

These Greek classical sculptures were mostly excavated and found around the Parthenon, in Athens. When Greece was under occupation by the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 19th century, the British Ambassador, the Earl of Elgin, secured permission to buy about half of the statues and bring them to Britain.

Elgin’s aquisitional action was seen as plunder by many, both in Greece and in London, including the poet, Lord Byron. To this day, there remain active calls for the statues to be returned to Athens.

Our arguments were largely sympathetic to the Greek recovery of the artwork. The occupying Ottomans themselves had no right of ownership to the marbles – they were not theirs to sell to us. Elgin’s action could be seen as outright plunder, exploitation and an expression of perceived racial superiority over the Greek peoples. 

The British have treated the marbles as our own.

So, why not return them to Athens? Some would say that we have had them for so long now they could be said to be ours. Also, the statues were not always well looked after in Athens, suffering damage from the weather, earthquakes, vandalism, and other art thieves from being out in the open air. While in the British museum and other galleries, the statues are well preserved, and attract many tourists and scholars.

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