The Venus de Milo is a second-rate work of sculpture. It was plundered from its home on the Greek island of Milos. It was presented to the French public and the world as a masterpiece by the great Praxitiles when your predecessors knew perfectly well that its pedestal bore a later and less distinguished signature. The broken-off bit of pedestal bearing the name of an obscure sculptor, Agesandros, citizen of Antioch, has since conveniently been lost in the cellars of the Louvre.
This provincial sculpture, a mere pastiche of classical Greek art, was transformed into an emblem of French national pride in the 1820s in an effort to help Frenchmen forget the losses your country suffered at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, including the humiliation of having to return all the artworks taken from Europe's capitals.
It was, in short, a small act of plunder to compensate for the return of larger plunders. And the biggest of the many mysteries that surround her is, how did a poor sculpture succeed in gaining such a large reputation?
In 1820, a Greek peasant on Milos found the statue under a thousand years' accumulation of earth. No fewer than three Frenchmen later claimed to have brought to light this great "masterpiece". But there are no grounds for believing any of them.
The French consul on Milos, knowing of the restored Bourbon King Louis XVIII's need for a boost, began negotiating for its purchase. But he did not get speedy authorisation to complete the deal. So he was gazumped. The Ottoman administrator of Milos made a better offer and arranged for the statue to be brought to his collection. According to most accounts, it was on its way to its new home when Count Marcellus, secretary in the French embassy in Constantinople, arrived in the harbour of Milos in a 16-gun French warship.
The French succeeded in persuading the locals to give them the Venus de Milo. The Louvre got the Venus, while the islanders got flogged. The French made no attempt to defend the people of Milos from the anger of the Ottoman administrator, and waited many years before helping them to pay the heavy fine levied for allowing the French to take the statue.
The Venus de Milo would be a much more interesting work of art if its real creator, however obscure, was acknowledged and its disreputable provenance spelt out. The Louvre has little to be ashamed of - there are, after all, many worse stories in the colourful histories of museums. There is no need to fear demand for its restitution, as no Greek politician, however hungry for votes, would attach importance to such an undistinguished work.
If you were brave enough to risk the wrath of your countrymen by demoting the Venus de Milo, you might encourage the millions of tourists who visit the Louvre to concentrate their energies on the many palpable masterpieces of Classical sculpture that are superbly exhibited there but sadly ignored because of the undue attention paid to this overrated work.
The writer presents 'Plunder', an investigation of the Venus de Milo, on Channel 4 on 4 June.Reuse content