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The Elgin Marbles: Finders, Keepers?

Is Britain really losing its marbles? If the Greek government has its way, the answer is yes. What we are speaking of is the famous Elgin Marbles, otherwise known as the Parthenon Marbles -- a collection of Greek sculptures taken from the Parthenon in Greece in 1801.

The Elgin Marbles consist of 17 figures and 56 panels chiseled off a giant frieze that once decorated the Parthenon. Also taken was a caryatid that supported the Erechtheion, a temple that is also located on the Acropolis with the Parthenon.

The sculptures were removed under the direction of Lord Elgin, the 7th Earl of Elgin, otherwise known as Thomas Bruce, who was appointed ambassador to Constantinople while it was under Ottoman Turkish rule in the late 1700s. The sculptures eventually made their way to Britain where Lord Elgin sold them to the British government for a price of 35,000 pounds in 1816. The Marbles were soon moved to the British Museum where they have been on public display to the present day.

Soon after Greece won its independence from Turkey in 1829, the Greek government sought the return of the Elgin Marbles, and has been ever since. As one might expect, the Greeks consider the Parthenon to be one of the most important symbols of their cultural heritage and claim the right to preserve it not only for its citizens but for the entire international community. In addition, Greece claims that Britain did not possess appropriate official documentation giving Lord Elgin permission to remove the sculptures.

Another objection in favor of bringing the Marbles back to Greece is the way they are displayed at the British Museum. Currently, the slabs are placed together as though they form a whole when in fact, there are many missing pieces. As they are displayed, the slabs do not appear in succession as intended when they graced the Parthenon.

Yet another issue is the care the sculptures have received at the British Museum. In the 1930s, the sculptures were cleaned in an attempt to make when white. But the sculptures are made of Pentelicon marble which ages to a pale honey color. The cleaning, which was accomplished with wire brushes and copper tools, removed significant details on the sculptures and altered its patina irreversibly.

As is usually the case, there are two sides to the coin. The British government is reluctant to give back the Marbles since it feels that, despite the cleaning debacle, they are better cared for at the British Museum. They claim that the Parthenon has been allowed to fall to ruin and since about 50 percent of the sculptures are missing anyway, the display of the sculptures will always appear fragmented. It is only at the British Museum that the significance of the sculptures can be fully appreciated, they claim; a place where millions can view cultural works of art from around the world, free of charge.

But soon this reasoning may evaporate. In the year 2000, the Greek government invited the British government to join them in reuniting the sculptures in one place: the new Acropolis Museum, currently under construction and scheduled for completion in 2006. Unlike the exhibition halls at the British Museum, the Acropolis Museum will have transparent glass walls and ceilings that will allow natural lighting to illuminate the beautiful works of art that will be displayed as closely as possible as they were intended. So far, no agreement has been reached but negotiations are in progress.

You can learn why the British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles has been established by clicking here.

The Parthenon
available at

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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
   You can see Diana's own artwork by visiting her site at