That's ours. No, it's not. Who really owns culture? Send them back (2 of 3)

By refusing to return the Marbles, argues Christopher Hitchens, Britain continues to connive at a grotesque act of vandalism
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Who really owns culture?

o the question "Who owns culture?" there is no uniform or consistent reply. Even in an increasingly interdependent world, I'd be prepared to say that Native American burial grounds and artefacts, say, are principally the concern and property of the peoples to whom they are sacred. But to the question "Who owns Greek culture?" there is a very clear answer. Greek culture belongs to the entire world.

The Greeks themselves acknowledge this. There is barely a museum on the globe that does not have its portion of Hellenic antiquity, and we would hardly deem as educated anyone who had no knowledge at all of the plays, political debates, philosophies and artistic styles of ancient Athens.

With its large ethnic diaspora, moreover, extensive merchant marine and geographical position, Greece has always been the apotheosis of internationalism. Many of the most majestic ancient Greek sites are as far afield as Egypt, Sicily and Lebanon.

There is only one piece of their extensive patrimony about which the Greeks feel possessive, so to speak. That is the amputated part of the sculpture of the Parthenon, vulgarly known as the Elgin Marbles and hence the prompting for a thousand boring headlines about marbles and their loss. One does not have to be Greek, however, to share the feeling that this amputation is a loss to sculpture and scholarship, and a violation of the symmetry and wholeness that are rightly praised as the essence of Greek art.

Visiting the British Museum in 1939, while writing his extremely Anglophile book England, Nicos Kazantzakis could not repress the feeling that the torn-away figures were somehow imprisoned. He wasn't to know of the depredations just visited upon them by Lord Duveen's "cleaners", or of the shamefaced concealment of the damage that was practised by the museum's trustees, but now we do know, thanks to the exertions of William St Clair and others. And now the Greek Ministry of Culture has filed its own report on this sorry affair.

I actually cited the row over the damage in my own book in 1988. I didn't rest too much weight on the evidence, because it seemed, and still seems, to me to be a side-issue. Defenders of the museum's position have long argued that Elgin saved the marbles from a worse fate, and that the ones in London have worn better than the ones that remained in Athens. Well, it can be demonstrated both that Elgin did extensive damage to the building, and that he nearly lost an important consignment of the loot at sea. And it can now be shown that the sculptures were maltreated in British custody.

But what difference does this make? Suppose we grant both retentionist claims without demur. The restitutionist case is still as strong as ever. It makes the simple and unanswerable aesthetic point, that a brilliant frieze that was carved as a unity, and that tells a narrative story, should not be broken in two and exhibited in separate cities.

Since nobody seriously proposes moving the rest of the Parthenon and its sculpture to Bloomsbury, the most natural solution is to reunite the figures in Athens, where they can be seen on the same day and in the same context as the great edifice that they were cut to adorn. Even if fortune's wheel had turned more against Greece than it has, and the inhabitants of the Attic peninsula were all to speak Turkish, Bulgarian or German, this argument would still possess overriding persuasive force.

Suppose that the panel of the Mona Lisa had been arbitrarily sawn in two, with one half in a gallery in Budapest and the other in Barcelona. Who would resist the call to reunite the two parts? Well, presumably there would be some hearty types who would say: "Steady on! If we do this, doesn't it set a precedent?" A precedent for what? For the reunification of separated pieces of integral artefacts? Where would be the harm in that?

Perhaps if one or other part of the painting had been torn or charred in either location, there would be those to recriminate. But no one is going to neglect the sculptures of Phidias any more. Their true worth is at last fully appreciated in both locations, as is the grotesque nature of their enforced segregation. The British are being offered the chance of a lifetime - the co-sponsorship of a unique piece of restoration. Truly, madly, deeply Philistine are those who see this hand extended and gruffly slap it away.

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for `Vanity Fair' and the author of `The Elgin Marbles: Should They Be Returned to Greece?' published by Verso.