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Greece Repeats Demand for Return of Elgin Marbles - 2003-04-08

Athens is once again demanding that the British Museum return the legendary Elgin Marbles to the Acropolis before the 2004 Athens summer Olympics.

Two hundred years ago, British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Lord Elgin, obtained the figures depicting an Athenian procession with permission of the Ottomans, who then occupied Greece.

The figures were then sold to the British Museum in London.

The Greek government has been lobbying for their return for more than two decades.

Now, the Onassis Center for Hellenic Art and Culture in New York is adding its voice to the debate, calling for the British Museum to return the ancient statues, which had been dismantled from a 146 meter section of the Parthenon frieze.

Greece's former Ambassador to the United States, Loucas Tsilas, heads the Onassis Foundation. He argues that returning the statues will restore the monument that symbolizes ancient civilization. "The return of the Elgin marbles is requested by all Greeks, not some Greeks," Mr. Tsilas said. "What Greece is asking is not that the marbles return simply to Greece, but that the marbles return to a monument which symbolizes the cradle of democracy, the classic civilization, which as a matter of fact belongs to the universe to the whole world."

The Onassis Center is currently exhibiting a reproduction of a carving of an ancient chariot race, split in two. The accompanying caption reads: "both pieces, currently divided between Athens and London, should be rejoined at the new Acropolis museum."

A model of that $100 million Acropolis museum is displayed, too. Advocates say that the construction of the elaborate glass-walled, earthquake-proof museum for the upcoming summer Olympic games in Athens counters the British Museum's argument that it provides the safest and most appropriate venue for the marbles.

But the debate over the fate of the statues is the most high profile in a growing number of controversies with broad implications for the art world.

A Case Western University art historian and expert on the Parthenon Frieze, Jenifer Neils, said that in opposing the return of the marbles to Greece, art institutions are trying to avoid setting a precedent for the repatriation of ancient art. "They have a kind of floodgate mentality," she said. "Once you return something, you are opening floodgates and everything will be asked for return. I do not think this is the case, since most of this cultural property was traded and exchanged and sold it is really is a special, case by case basis."

The topic is so hot that no curator who opposes the return of the marbles would agree to be interviewed for this story. One art director from a northeastern museum told VOA that he does not want his name used because he worries that if he voices his view, he "will never be invited back to Greece."

But in an apparent show of support for the British Museum, 18 of the world's leading museum directors, including nine from the United States, signed a statement published in the British press last December.

The document discourages illegal trafficking of ancient and ethnic art. But it says repatriation should be judged individually, because many objects have "become part of the museums that have cared for them, and by extension, part of the heritage of the nations, which house them."

But Professor Neils said throughout much of the world, museums have a national mission. "If you go to museums in Italy, or Greece and Egypt, their museums are not like ours," Ms. Neils said. They are not trying to be universal museums, art museums. They have a different mission, which is to present the culture of their own country."

Many countries in Europe, including France and Britain, also require export permits to sell or remove important artistic works and some give governments the right of first refusal.

In 1970, the United Nations imposed strict international regulations on the sale of ethnic or ancient art.

Onassis foundation director Loucas Tsilis says that the British Museum can resolve the dispute by using the 2004 Athens Olympics as justification for returning the marbles, perhaps as a long-term loan.

"The Olympic games are important because, as we will be celebrating these important games in the land of their birth and almost 100 years after their modern revival, it would be appropriate and a very good sign to have an important monument of this era restored to its integrity again," said Loucas Tsilis.

The controversy over the Elgin Marbles is one of several repatriation disputes, including the fate of the Pergamon Alter, claimed by Turkey but displayed in Berlin, the Benin Bronzes now in Scotland, and Native American Indian art scattered all over the world in private collections.