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Release: Oct. 25, 2002

Art law scholar discusses British possession of Greek sculpture at UI law school forum

Are countries obligated to return cultural and historical items taken from other countries in years past? That question was discussed Thursday by Stanford University law professor John Henry Merryman in a forum at the UI College of Law.

Specifically, Merryman addressed the Elgin Marbles, several hundred feet of ancient friezes and numerous smaller sculptures removed from the Acropolis in Athens in the early 19th century by Thomas Bruce, the Earl of Elgin and British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Elgin shipped the sculptures back to England and sold them to the British government in 1816, which later put them on display in the British Museum, where they remain to this day. They have become a difficult point in British-Greek relations because the Greek government has for the last 20 years been demanding the Marbles’ return, claiming the British illegally stole them, a demand the British government has continually rejected. The Greeks have softened their rhetoric in recent years to no longer claim ownership, although they would like the British to loan the pieces back to them.

Merryman is the Sweitzer Professor of Law and Affiliated Professor of Art, Emeritus, at

Stanford and a noted international scholar on art law and cultural property law. Merryman first addressed the issue in 1985 when he published the article "Thinking About the Elgin Marbles," arguing the British government is not obligated to return the Acropolis sculptures. Although several new facts have come to light since, he said Thursday he still largely stands by his argument.

Merryman believes the removal of the Marbles to England was legal because Elgin had permission to do so from the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, which controlled Greece in the early 19th century. The moral issue, however, is thornier because good arguments can be made for both sides, he said. On the one hand, Merryman said the removal may be considered immoral because it took from the Acropolis numerous pieces of sculpture that were vital to the building's aesthetic integrity. In addition, Elgin's workers weren't always careful in their work, and several pieces were damaged when they were taken down from the Acropolis.

New information since his 1985 article also showed the British Museum has not always been a good caretaker of the Marbles. In the 1930s, several museum employees violated its own policies and cleaned the ancient marble pieces using a steel scraping blade and harsh, abrasive cleansers, removing paint and patina from the marble and causing additional damage.

However, Elgin's actions may be considered moral because in the long term, removing the sculptures to Britain has protected them from numerous threats, including plundering tourists, Ottoman mismanagement and corruption, and, in the 20th century, a smog crisis in Athens that is slowly destroying numerous outdoor Greek antiquities through chemical erosion. He also points to Elgin's motives as moral. The ambassador shipped the pieces back to England at great expense to himself in order to inspire a new British art movement based on Ancient Greek artistic ideals, and to preserve a cultural legacy. The sale of the Marbles to the British government, however, did not offset his expenses and he eventually went broke, dying in poverty in France.

"He suffered a great personal financial loss to save a cultural treasure, which is a great moral act," Merryman said. "However, the issue is morally balanced so it is not clearly immoral."

In the end, however, Merryman believes the Marbles should stay in the British Museum for the practical reason that they're safer there. The Athen's smog problem is so bad that the Greek government is taking down many of its unprotected outdoor antiquities and moving them indoors, often to places where they are not on display to the public. As a result, the Marbles couldn't be restored to the Acropolis if they were returned to Greece and would be seen by far fewer people if stored out of public view. By staying at the British Museum, they are both protected and on public view.

Merryman said he believes the recent change in the Greek government's position renouncing an ownership claim of the Marbles may be a starting point for negotiations between the two governments and lead to the eventual return of the sculptures.