Playing for All the Marbles: Greece, Britain Battle for Antiquities

The message from Athens to London is blunt: "We want our marbles back."

The reply of the British Museum, custodian of priceless sculptures that were removed from the Greek capital more than 180 years ago, is just as candid: "You can't have them."

Argument about what should happen to the so-called Elgin Marbles has raged for decades. The sculptures are named for Lord Elgin, a British diplomat who took them from the Parthenon in Athens and carried them back to London over several years during the early 1800s.

In the 1980s, the film star Melina Mercouri, then Greece's culture minister, campaigned vigorously for their return to Athens. But her life ended with the marbles still firmly attached to the inner walls of the British Museum in London, where 6 million people see them every year.

Scholars in Greece contend that the 2,430-year-old artworks, which include a 500-foot-long marble frieze weighing several tons, ought to be returned. But Dyfri Williams, the British Museum's keeper of Greek and Roman antiquities, is adamant that after nearly two centuries in London, they should stay put.

Recently, Greece's hopes have been raised by reports that Chris Smith, Prime Minister Tony Blair's culture secretary, is sympathetic to a formal handover of the marbles before 2004, when Athens hosts the Olympic Games.

Also, one of Britain's strongest arguments for holding on to the marbles - that experts at the British Museum can be relied on to take good care of them - has just been undermined.

Classical historian William St. Clair claims in a book published June 7 that the world-famous sculptures were scrubbed with metal scrapers 60 years ago and seriously damaged. According to Mr. St. Clair, the honey-colored patina of the marbles - the result of 2,000 years of weathering - was destroyed, leaving them a bland white. He claims the British Museum hushed up the damage.

"These revelations constitute an additional argument in favor of our case for the return of the marbles to where they belong," says Vassilis Zaffiropoulos, Greece's ambassador to Britain, in response to St. Clair's book.

News of the damage brought Greece's deputy foreign minister, Andreas Papandreou, son of a former prime minister, hurrying to London. After a close inspection, he commented: "There has been very great damage. History has been lost."

Papandreou said the Greek government would be reporting to UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations, and demanding a full inquiry.

If he decides that the marbles should be allowed to return home, Culture Secretary Smith may have problems persuading the British Museum to part with its most prized exhibit.

Law would seem to be on the museum's side. After the marbles arrived in Britain, Lord Elgin, who had been British ambassador to Constantinople, the center of the Ottoman Empire, sold the marbles to the museum in 1816 for 70,000 ($110,000) equivalent to about 2.8 billion ($4.5 billion) today.

Under the arrangement, the marbles were to be "preserved and kept together" under British parliamentary statutes that forbid the British Museum to sell or give away its possessions.

This is thought to mean that the marbles could not go back to Athens unless the British Parliament passed a special law.

Culture Secretary Smith's official position on the marbles is that they should remain in Britain. But his friends have been reported as saying that he thinks their return to Greece would be a friendly gesture, likely to be understood by the British public.

But if the Blair government decides to introduce such a bill, an uproar seems certain.

Christopher Hitchens, a radical British journalist based in the United States, argues that such a return would be proper. In a new book, "The Elgin Marbles: Should they be Returned to Greece?" he notes precedents.

"John Major when prime minister returned from London to Edinburgh the Stone of Scone [used for crowning ancient Scottish kings]," Mr. Hitchens writes. "Not long ago the British Museum returned a portion of the beard of the Sphinx to Egypt. The same should happen to the Elgin Marbles."

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