Stupid Countries, Stupider Museums
Enter Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin and British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, who had such a bad bout of syphilis that late in life his nose fell off. Elgin went to Athens in 1800 with a small retinue of artists to make drawings and plaster casts of the remaining sculptures. When he discovered that these masterpieces were being chiseled and stolen by tourists, Elgin arranged to have these 2,000-year-old works of art shipped to England where he sold them to the British Government at a huge personal financial loss. As well as being exhibited in the British Museum, pieces of the Parthenon sculptures are scattered around the world in nine other countries.
Over recent years, Greece has mounted a vast and nasty PR campaign to get them back, vilifying England and all the other 19th century thieves, even though had it not been for Lord Elgin, these things would by now have been reduced to talcum powder and blowin’ in the wind.
On a personal note, I have seen the Elgin Marbles on several occasions, and each time they depressed the hell out of me—headless with missing limbs and noseless faces—all horribly weather-beaten. In the heyday of classical Greece, these objects were garishly painted, like figures on a merry-go-round.
If the Greek Minister of Culture had the brains of his or her predecessor, the great actress Melina (“Never on Sunday”) Mercouri, the message to the British Museum would be:
“You can keep the Elgin Marbles, so long as you put travel brochures for Greece on the way in—and the way out of—the gallery. If your visitors like the Elgin Marbles, we got a million of ‘em here!
The Euphronios Krater
In 1972, the buccaneer Director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas Hoving, acquired what he calls the “Hot Pot”—perhaps the most spectacular Greek vase in the world—from a shady dealer in Italy. Italy has demanded it back, claiming that it was stolen goods and had no business leaving the country, and the Met has agreed to return it.