Photo shows Greeks chiselling Marbles

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The Independent Online
THIS IS the photograph set to inflame the increasingly bitter debate over the Elgin Marbles. Its publication comes a week after President Clinton's controversial call for them to be returned to Greece.

The picture shows a Greek restorer in 1953, scraping off the original patina from a frieze in the Parthenon's sister temple in Athens, the Hephaesteion, with a steel chisel.

Critics of the Greeks claim that the damage to the Hephaesteion is far worse than the damage caused to the Elgin Marbles by restoration at the British Museum in the 1930s which provoked Greek anger.

As international conservators gather at the British Museum in London this week for a conference on the Marbles, further recriminations are expected all round.

Michael Daley, director of ArtWatch UK, which opposes over-conservation of works of art, argues that the Hephaesteion restoration shows both countries made serious mistakes. But while the museum has owned up, the Greeks have so far refused to take any blame for work they carried out.

The photograph is published in the new edition of Art Review, in which Mr Daley accuses the Greeks of wriggling out of their responsibility for damage done.

Mr Daley first raised his complaints about the Hephaesteion restoration earlier this month. The work involved the wrongful removal of the patina by steel chisels.

Dr Victoria Solomonides, Greece's cultural attache to London, immediately disclaimed Greek responsibility for the damage. She blamed the American School of Archaeology in Athens whose director had consulted the Boston Museum of Fine Art and the British Museum before implementing cleaning work.

But in Art Review, Mr Daley details documents from the time suggesting that the Greeks were fully aware of what was being done. In 1953, Homer Thompson, the field director of one of the excavation projects in Athens, reported that the Greeks had expressed themselves "well pleased" with the work after inspecting it "both during its progress and after".

Mr Daley concedes there was some truth in claims that the restoration was guided by the British Museum. In response to requests, H J Plenderleith, the museum's head of science, advised Mr Thompson that there were six possible courses of action which he warned were "not without danger to the marble".

These included chiselling with wooden wedges and the possibility of going one stage further with a soft copper chisel which has the same degree of hardness as marble. But Mr Daley said: "At no stage did Plenderleith commend or suggest the use of steel chisels which are, of course, much harder than marble."

Mr Thompson later told the museum that wooden scrapers had proved costly and they had found "light chisels of steel gave the best results".

Mr Daley said: "It is not known by whom steel chisels were authorised, but their use can hardly have gone unnoticed by the Athenian authorities during their inspections."

He said the significance of this dispute was that the museum had acknowledged its errors in cleaning work carried out on the Elgin Marbles. All the documents had now been made fully available. By contrast, "much more serious damage in Athens is being brushed under the carpet".

The new claims come as the Greek government has stepped up pressure on the British to return the Elgin Marbles to Athens. A team of Greek conservationists who visited London this month announced that the botched British restoration was much worse than originally thought.