The government of Greece has recently asked France to borrow the piece of the Parthenon frieze that France possesses, on the occasion of the bicentenary celebrations of Greece’s independence, which will take place in 2021. (1) France will undoubtedly accept this request, and will perhaps ask in exchange, as is customary, to borrow related artefacts of similar levels: bronzes that have never been to France.
It is an opportunity, once again, to think of returning, whenever it is possible, art treasures of each civilization to their place of origin. And in Europe, it is perfectly possible.
The Parthenon bas-reliefs, sculpted in 446 BC, were purchased in 1796 from the Ottoman sultan, who then controlled Greece, by a strange French poet and diplomat, Count Louis-François-Sébastien Fauvel. There are other bas-reliefs, in much greater quantities, which were also purchased between 1801 and 1805 by the first English ambassador to Constantinople, Lord Elgin, who took them from Count Fauvel, by paying a high price for these items with his personal money. It was a massacre: tearing off 12 statues from the pediments, 156 plaques from the frieze of the temple of Athena, 13 metopes, the frieze and a caryatid from the Erechtheion—it became necessary to tear down part of the Acropolis, despite protests from Byron and Chateaubriand. It took 200 crates to pack everything and countless boats to take them to London, where Elgin only managed to sell them at a loss in 1816 to the British Museum. The only thing he had in common with his French rival was that they both died in poverty.
The English people explain today that there is no question of returning the frescoes, centrepieces of the British Museum. Because the items were legally purchased; because without Elgin they would have been destroyed during the civil war that followed; and because Greece never had the means, and still do not today, to preserve them in a satisfactory way. The Greeks replied that the purchase of art pieces from an occupying power was tantamount to theft and that they had every right to keep them, especially since the construction of the new Acropolis Museum.
There is no text that can force France and Great Britain to return such treasures to their original owners. The UNESCO Convention, which requires stolen parts to be returned, only applies to thefts that occured after 1970.
France, however, should lead the way, on the occasion of the commemoration of the bicentennial of Greek’s independence, in two years’ time. France should not lend these items, rather she should return them. Moreover, France should take note, as a criterion, that Greece is a European country, and that it is not honourable to keep in a European country the spoils from the looting of another European country. By that date, Britain, with Brexit, will have moved away from the European Union, but it will still be a nation of Europe, no matter what it says, and it should also return these items.
Today, possessing these items only comforts the ego of the conservatives. Visitors, on the other hand, only see these treasures from a distance, usually through the prism of their phones. They would not be deprived in any way if they saw a perfect copy, or better if they walked alone in a three-dimensional virtual reconstruction of the place. Imagine, in the Louvre, a virtual reconstruction of the Parthenon; or of Mycenae, or of Pergamos, or of Babylon. It would look quite different.
We will get to that. And museums will soon be places that we will be able to visit through virtual visits and immersive shows, where we will come out having learned a lot. And not, as it is today, by checking a box on a derisory list of soulless places that one must see.
My editorial for the Journal des Arts