Relics of the age of exploration will remain in Britain, for now

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The Independent Online

"After long months of ceaseless anxiety and strain, after times when hope beat high and times when the outlook was black indeed, we have been compelled to abandon the ship, which is crushed beyond all hope of ever being righted ... it is hard to write what I feel."

"After long months of ceaseless anxiety and strain, after times when hope beat high and times when the outlook was black indeed, we have been compelled to abandon the ship, which is crushed beyond all hope of ever being righted ... it is hard to write what I feel."

It was 23 October 1915 and the explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton acknowledged in his diary that his Antarctic expedition was in tatters.

More than six months would pass before the explorer and his team would finally reach a remote whaling station. Amid the icy conditions and biting winds all but the most essential items had to be jettisoned. But beneath his tattered garments, Sir Ernest tucked the richly painted silk Royal Standard which the Dowager Queen Alexandra had presented to him upon his departure on Endurance more than a year earlier.

Eighty-five years later the flag, with one carried by Captain Robert Falcon Scott on his ill-fated 1910 expedition, has become the subject of a cross-Atlantic tug of war between an American collector and a London museum that is determined to keep the polar treasures on British soil.

Yesterday the National Maritime Museum announced a tentative truce in the battle after Neil Silverman, a Florida stock trader, agreed to lend it the Shackleton flag for a forthcoming exhibition.

He and the museum have been contesting ownership of both flags since Mr Silverman, a collector of Antarctic memorabilia, paid £100,000 for them at a Christie's auction last September. Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, immediately took steps to keep them in the country. And the Government's Export Review Committee blocked an export licence to give the museum time to raise funds to buy the flags.

But Mr Silverman has flatly refused to relinquish ownership, insisting he would rather "cut them into one-inch squares. They are not for sale. They don't have to stay in this country any more than the Elgin Marbles should be in Greece."

David Spence, exhibitions director at the Maritime Museum, is equally passionate about the relics. "They stand for that of spirit of a golden age which ended after the Shackleton trip and the disillusionment which came with the First World War," he said.

Both parties remain confident of victory. Mr Silverman sees no reason he should not be granted an export licence upon reapplication in a few years' time. The museum is equally adamant that will not be the case. Mr Spence said: "My understanding is that, unless there is a significant change in circumstances regarding the flags, he will not be granted an export licence for the next 10 years."

For now, having held "cordial" talks, they have come to a ceasefire. Mr Silverman has lent the Shackleton Standard to Dulwich College for a four-month exhibition on the explorer beginning on 31 October. It will then transfer to the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, until September 2001, before being moved to Cambridge for a year. The American will then reapply for export licences.

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