The Greeks have lost their marbles. Now what about George Clooney?


acropolis-12044George is currently gracing London with his august presence. He’s here to promote his latest film that deals with Americans saving… well, not the world this time, but merely some art treasures looted by the Nazis.

(The actual saving was done by an Englishman, but what’s an insignificant detail like that among friends enjoying a special relationship?)

Now the dominant beliefs these days are that a) everyone is entitled to his own opinion, no matter how offensively ignorant, b) expertise in one field automatically makes one an expert in any other and c) a celebrity of any kind is worth listening to no matter what gibberish he’s mouthing.

In this ABC spirit a Greek reporter asked George at a Berlin press conference whether he thought the Elgin marbles ought to be returned to Greece. George honestly admitted he knew nothing about it, which to you and me would be sufficient reason to shut up.

Alas, neither of us is a celebrity and George is. Therefore he feels justified to shoot from the lip, as he did in this case. Sure, he said. The Elgin marbles, of whose existence he was at the time blissfully unaware, must go back where they belong.

To his credit George anticipated that the same question would be certain to come up in London, in whose British Museum the marbles have been for the last 200 years. So it did, but George was forewarned and therefore forearmed:

“I stepped into one the other day,” he said with his pearly smile. “I had to do a little bit of research to show I’m not completely out of my mind. Even in England the polling is in favour of returning the marbles to the Pantheon.”

Er… it’s actually the Parthenon, George. There’s a Pantheon in Paris, and another one in Rome, but none in Athens. Easy mistake to make, but methinks a little bit more research is in order before running off at the mouth, wouldn’t you say?

I don’t know how much George’s co-stars Bill Murray and Matt Damon know about the subject. They may know more about it than you and I, or they may know sod-all. Having grown up among actors (my grandfather was one), I rather think the latter is more likely. But in this instance it makes no difference: they’ve been on the telly, which means they are experts on anything they wish to enlarge on.

So yes, they’re with George on this one. Whatever those damn things are, the Greeks must have them back.

I’m not going to argue the intricacies of the international law involved, simply because, not being a celebrity, I only ever try to talk about things I know at least something about.

It’s possibly out of such ignorance that I’m willing to accept that the Greeks may have a legal right to get their marbles back. Then again, they may not. What is absolutely undeniable is that, in view of their history, our moral right to the sculptures is unimpeachable.

The Earl of Elgin first got involved with them in 1799, when he was appointed His Majesty’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, of which Greece was then part.

Upon his arrival he went into the archives and noticed that many of the sculptures listed were no longer extant. An utterly civilised man, Lord Elgin approached British officials to ask if they would underwrite the effort of making plaster casts and drawings of the sculptures before they all disappeared.

The response, according to Lord Elgin, “was entirely negative”. He then decided to finance the effort himself, starting with cataloguing the sculptures in the Parthenon and elsewhere in the Acropolis.

He then discovered that the Turks, whose reverence for such things wasn’t the same as Lord Elgin’s, were burning the marble sculptures to obtain lime for construction purposes. Aghast, Lord Elgin began to have the sculptures removed (and excavated) in 1801, completing the project in 1812.

This cost him £70,000 (almost £70 million in today’s inflated cash), a huge outlay only partially offset when Lord Elgin sold the sculptures to the British museum, which had been his intention all along. That he was driven not only by aesthetic appreciation but also by patriotism is evident from the fact that he rejected much higher offers from Napoleon and others.

It’s a fair bet that, had the marbles remained in Greece, which is to say in the Ottoman Empire, they wouldn’t have survived for us to admire. As it is they delight six million people every year, all of whom ought to be grateful to Lord Elgin.

As I mentioned before, the legal casuistry of the dispute between Britain and Greece goes over my head. Suffice it say that the world’s museums are full of treasures looted by erstwhile conquerors in ways, and for reasons, much less benign than Lord Elgin’s.

Russian museums, for example, are full of treasures Soviet soldiers looted from German owners either before or after raping and killing the women of the house (not always in that order). Napoleon’s booty adorns the museums of France and Belgium. Some of those works of art found their way to Sweden courtesy of Napoleon’s marshal Bernadotte who became King of Sweden and founded the currently reigning dynasty.

Perhaps all those masterpieces ought to be returned to their original owners. Perhaps the Elgin marbles ought to be as well, even though the Earl’s motives were a great deal more noble than those of assorted looters and rapists.

However, one way or the other the issue must be decided by lawyers and diplomats, not by vox populi to which George Clooney referred. And certainly not by silly ignoramuses who feel they’re entitled not only to their own opinion but also to an audience.

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