British Museum thefts ‘reinforce’ Parthenon restitution claims, according to Greek minister

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The Greek culture minister, Lina Mendoni, says that the controversy over stolen items from the British Museum means there are questions over “the credibility of the museum”. Crucially, the ongoing furore “reinforces the permanent and just demand of our country for the reunification of the Parthenon Marbles at the Acropolis Museum in Athens”, she adds.

Her comments came after Peter Higgs, a senior curator of Greek and Roman art who was employed at the British Museum for 30 years, was identified in UK press reports as the person alleged to be responsible for stealing priceless artefacts from the museum’s collection. Higgs’s family has denied the allegations against him.

Recent reports state that the number of items taken is thought to total more than 1,500. A spokesperson for the British Museum told The Art Newspaper: “We won’t be commenting on any details of the thefts while they’re subject to a police investigation.”

In an interview with the Greek newspaper To Vima, Mendoni said that “the loss, theft, [and] deterioration of objects from a museum’s collections is an extremely serious and particularly sad event”, stressing that the culture ministry is carefully monitoring developments. “When such incidents occur, there is obviously a question of safety and integrity [around] all of the museum’s exhibits,” she adds.

According to the Independent, the head of the Association of Greek Archaeologists, Despina Koutsoumba, also raised concerns, saying her colleagues were “worried” about how many Greek items are missing from the museum.

But a Conservative MP hit back at claims the institution is not safe following the alleged thefts. Tim Loughton told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: “What is particularly damaging is [the] blatant opportunism of the Greeks and others saying, ‘Oh no, the British Museum is not safe’… It’s incredibly rare that things go missing.”

The fifth-century-BC statues have been housed in the British Museum since 1816 after they were removed from the Parthenon temple on the Acropolis in Athens by agents working for the Scottish nobleman Lord Elgin, the then ambassador to the Ottoman court. The sculptures went on display in the British Museum in 1817.

Mendoni also criticised the condition of the Greek galleries at the British Museum which house the celebrated marble sculptures. In 2021, the shoddy state of the galleries fuelled Greek demands for their restitution.

“With the Parthenon Sculptures in particular, let us remember the highly problematic situation with rainwater in their exhibition rooms in 2019 and 2021, [reflecting] the abandonment of the British Museum building,” she says.

Mendoni goes on to document the “abuse” of the marbles in the British Museum’s care. “From 1816 and for a century or so they remained exposed not only to London’s extreme air pollution, but to a room where they burned coal in chimneyless heaters. This resulted in the blackening of their surface and its corrosion,” she says, adding: “In the 1930s Lord Duveen used wire brushes and chemicals to remove the ancient patina [on the marbles].”

Duveen, a wealthy art dealer, was funding a new gallery to display the marbles, and he thought they should look whiter. The 2,500-year old sculptures were therefore “cleaned” with copper chisels and carborundum. The British Museum was contacted for comment.

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