Art and Entertainment

AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris
Five of six late 5th century B.C. sculptures

are displayed in the new
Acropolis Museum.
The sixth is in the British
Museum in London. 

Opening of New Acropolis Museum Revives Debate Over Once-Stolen Artifacts

June 19, 2009 12:00 PM
by Haley A. Lovett
Plaster replicas of the Elgin Marbles will be on display for the opening of the new Acropolis Museum, as Greece holds out hope that the British Museum will one day return the original statues.

British Museum Offers to Loan Statues, Greece Declines

The statues in question, taken from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin in the 1800s, have since become part of the collection of the British Museum, according to The Associated Press reports that the Elgin statues make up about half of those that survived after the Parthenon was hit by a canon 1687. The statues were part of a depiction of a religious procession and include figures of men, gods, centaurs and giants.

Greek officials had hoped to display that religious procession in its entirety in the new Acropolis Museum, which opens on June 20. However, according to the AP, the Elgin statues will not be among the thousands of ancient sculptures housed by the museum. Instead, plaster copies of those statues will fill out the procession.

Cultural Minister Antonis Samaras told the AP that he hopes the new museum will encourage the return of the statues. The British Museum had offered to loan the statues to the new Acropolis Museum, but with the condition that the Acropolis Museum acknowledge that the statues belong to the British Museum. Samaras told that such an acknowledgement would be like “legitimizing the snatching of the marbles and the carving up of the monument 207 years ago.”

Background: History of the Acropolis in Athens

The Acropolis is a raised rocky area of land in Athens that is home to the Parthenon and other notable Greek monuments. In the 8th century B.C., according to the Hellenic Ministry of Culture, a temple to Athena Polias was built on the site and the Acropolis first became a sacred place. In the centuries that followed more buildings were constructed on the site, including the precursor to the Parthenon. When the Persians attacked Athens in 480 B.C. many of the buildings were nearly destroyed. During the mid-fifth century B.C. great artists and architects of the time constructed the buildings that exist on the Acropolis today.

In the hundreds of years leading up to the present day, Athens suffered from much political unrest and the buildings were used for many purposes, including munitions storage, housing for rulers, and as churches. The Parthenon was hit by a canon in 1687 and destroyed, and was later looted by Lord Elgin.

Many efforts have been made in the last century to restore some of the monuments at the Acropolis. According to the Acropolis Restoration Service, efforts to preserve and restore the Parthenon began when Greece was established as an independent state in the 1800’s. After early efforts at restoration proved to be insufficient, Greece established a committee in the 1970s to help with the restoration process.

Related Stories: Disputes over stolen artwork nothing new

Cases such as the dispute over the Elgin statues are nothing new in the art and archeology world. In 2008 Italian authorities were able to recover a record amount of stolen artifacts and artwork, a move they attributed to increased efforts to stop illegal archeological digs and smuggling of illegal works out of the country.

It is not uncommon for Italian land owners to find previously unknown ancient buried treasures and artifacts. Even the building of a subway system in Rome has proven to be a quite daunting archeological feat, as workers continually uncover ancient relics. Artifacts such as the ones found buried can often sell for a great deal of money, making it tempting for the finders to keep them rather than turn them over to authorities, as is the law.

Over the last few years, a few U.S. museums have worked with Italian authorities and returned pieces of artwork once stolen from Italy. Though stolen pieces of art do not always get returned to their home country or owners. Many artifacts were taken from Jewish people in Europe during World War II, and some, though not nearly all, have been returned. Iraqi people have also been victim to wartime looting, and there is little a war-torn country can do to prevent loss of such artifacts.

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