Book: They lost their marbles, he lost his nose

THE ELGIN AFFAIR: The Abduction of Antiquity's Greatest Treasures and the Passions it Aroused by Theodore Vrettos, Secker pounds

"What right had he to remove the precious stones of a weak nation?" demanded Byron on a visit to Athens in 1810, a few years after Lord Elgin's appropriation of the Parthenon sculptures. "What right had he to raise his hand against a building that had stood whole for two thousand years?" For nearly 200 years, the controversy over the Elgin Marbles - and the question of their return to Greece - has raged unabated, fuelling endless questions in the Commons, as well as TV documentaries, Comment page diatribes, even tabloid headlines. In fact, the arguments for and against are trotted out so regularly to such small effect, it seems as if the two sides are trapped, like the Lapiths and Centaurs of the Parthenon metopes, in eternal, unresolved conflict.

So what more could there be to say? If anyone knows, it's Theodore Vrettos: The Elgin Affair is his third study of the Marbles. But where other writers have concerned themselves with how and why Britain should return them (or not), Vrettos concentrates instead on how and why they first arrived here.

Vrettos' tale begins in 1799, with the appointment of Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin, as British ambassador to Constantinople, charged with ensuring the support of the Ottoman empire against Napoleon. But Elgin, an impoverished aristocrat, obsessed with classical art, had an agenda of his own. For the next three years, as Vrettos records in loving detail, he removed as much stoneware from the Eastern Mediterranean as he could carry - some 120 tons in all, bribing Turkish officials, scorning weeping Greek priests or peasants, concerned only that the French, on the look- out for booty to fill the Louvre, might beat him to it.

Yet far from portraying a cool and calculating buccaneer, Vrettos' narrative, based on a wealth of contemporary letters, diaries and official reports, reveals a sickly and anxious man, beset by diplomatic misunderstandings and plagued by a mysterious "ague" which destroyed his nose and revolted his wife (syphilis, Byron cruelly suggested). Rather, it is Lady Elgin, despite wishing that "Elgin had never set eyes on the Marbles", who takes control, charming recalcitrant captains into shipping the treasures back to Britain, or sending long, learned descriptions of the Marbles home in the hope of persuading public opinion of their worth.

But nemesis wasn't far away. Travelling back to England through mainland France, the Elgins were arrested as prisoners of war ("surely," noted the indefatigable Lady Elgin, surveying fellow British detenus, "there must be at least one good whist player in that lot").

After the death of her son William, Lady Elgin was allowed to return to Britain accompanied by a young nobleman, Robert Fergusson. When Lord Elgin, too, was eventually released, he returned home to face not only public fury over his appropriation of the Marbles, but also the news that his wife was conducting an adulterous affair with Fergusson. Vrettos treats us to a delicious blow by blow account of Fergusson's adultery trial, including the time a footman burst into the drawing room to find Lady Elgin with her "petticoats up". Elgin won the suit (and Lady Elgin lost her children) but it almost bankrupted him. Desperate to raise money, and facing accusations that the Marbles were Roman copies, he sold them to the British Government for a paltry pounds 35,000 - less than half the amount it had cost him to secure and ship them.

Vrettos presents the whole debacle as morality tale, with all its main players meeting miserable ends (even Spencer Perceval, the Prime Minister responsible for the Marbles'purchase, is assassinated). Yet he seems too close to his subject for dispassionate judgement: somehow Elgin's diplomatic muddles are never his fault and we learn far more about his passion for his treasure than his means of acquiring it. How different, for example, was Elgin's cruise around the Aegean islands on the HMS Narcissus, "seizing any antiquity he could find" to the activities of the pirates he captured off Delos?

This is a story played out against the greed and hypocrisy of the British upper classes; even the clergyman who accompanied Elgin to Constantinople looked forward to "the splendid fortune" his mission might provide. But Elgin had met his match in the British Government - if whole territories were trifles to be toyed with, even seized, what price a few of their antiquities? In the last war Britain was still keeping Greece sweet with the promise of the Marbles' return, while privately reasserting the validity of British ownership.

Here is an absorbing account of one of the more sordid episodes in British history, packed with unforgettable detail. The tale of the prize-fighter paid to pose naked beside the sculptures so that "his anatomy might be compared with the statues" is worth the cover price alone. Can we ever look at the Marbles in the same way again?

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