Can Amal Clooney Save Greece’s Antiquities?
LONDON — George Clooney may have been the worst Batman in Hollywood history but thanks to his new wife’s battle for justice over a 200-year-old act of vandalism, he has finally found his rightful place in a crime-fighting duo—as the amiable side-kick.
Amal Clooney intervened in a diplomatic stand-off between Britain and Greece on Wednesday, offering legal advice to the Greek Prime Minister and claiming they had “a just cause” as part of a campaign to repatriate the Elgin Marbles, a set of monuments carved in the fifth century BC. Greece claims they were looted from the Parthenon by a nefarious British Indiana Jones character in the early 1800s.
While Mrs. Clooney attended top level meetings in Athens, her husband was at Comic Con in New York issuing a public apology for his one and only outing as the caped crusader in Batman and Robin.
He had faltered in the lead, but Clooney has already played an invaluable supporting role in this campaign. While promoting The Monuments Men, a movie about returning art looted by the Nazis in World War II, he waded into the controversy over the Elgin Marbles and offered his backing to Greece’s claim to have them returned.
His remarks and a subsequent row with the London mayor helped to return the issue to the public consciousness. At the time, few people knew that Clooney’s girlfriend had been working on returning the Marbles to Greece for the past three years. Two months later it was announced that they were engaged.
“Maybe we needed these iconic figures to raise the profile of the issue,” Marlen Godwin, of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, told The Daily Beast. “we’ve been campaigning for 30 years—and the debate had gone a bit stale. The Clooneys have put it back in fashion.”
Mrs. Clooney has been followed around Athens during a three-day visit by a horde of paparazzi that number into the hundreds. They tried to cram into the Acropolis Museum on Wednesday where she observed a half-filled exhibition that was re-opened in 2009 to house the complete Parthenon collection.
Inside the museum, she said the fight for the sculptures’ return was a “just cause.” Vassilis Tavonis, a senior culture ministry adviser in Athens, who met Clooney, her boss Geoffrey Robertson, and a third lawyer, Norman Palmer, on Tuesday, said Greece was considering taking Britain to the International Court of Justice. Last year UNESCO, the cultural branch of the UN, asked the British government to enter a period of mediation but London has refused to negotiate.
One official involved in the campaign admitted that Mrs. Clooney’s headline-grabbing trip to Athens may be more about pressuring Britain rather than genuinely preparing for a costly legal battle between the two countries, which would be unpopular with both governments. “When you have something that has become as high profile as this in the last 24 hours because of the characters involved you start to think maybe it’s more about the threat rather than actually going to court over it,” the official said.
The trip was originally scheduled for September, but Robertson, Palmer and Antonis Samaras, the Greek prime minister, changed their plans to accommodate Mrs. Clooney, who was in Venice at the time, taking part in the most glamorous wedding of the year.
She returned to work after the honeymoon and immediately changed her name on the website of the prestigious Doughty Street Chambers. She was no longer Amal Alamuddin, a name that saw her become one of the most sought-after lawyers in the world, with Julian Assange, Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Ukrainian prime minister, and Kofi Annan, ex-Secretary General of the UN, among her clients. As a student she took an internship in New York with Sonia Sotomayor, who would later join the Supreme Court.
The battle for the future of the Elgin Marbles, which has had British and Greek governments at loggerheads for generations, may be her most high-profile case to date.
Lord Elgin, who took the monuments, claimed that he had been given permission to protect the statues by the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, who ruled the region at the time. The Greeks dispute that, and question the fallen empire’s authority to have done so in any case. The British Museum claims that it purchased the sculptures perfectly legally from Elgin and has absolutely no intention of allowing them to return to Greece.
The museum, which hosts one of the world’s finest collections of ancient artifacts, fears that returning the Marbles would open the door to dozens of similar claims from all over the world. Egypt, for example, could demand the return of the Rosetta Stone, an extraordinary tablet dating back to 196 BC that contains a decree in three languages which helped to unlock translations for the mysterious hieroglyphics that had puzzled historians for centuries.
It was Mr. Clooney who reignited the debate last year with his response to a question at the Berlin Film Festival. “You have a good case. Maybe it wouldn’t be a bad thing if they were returned. It is a good idea, a fair thing to do,” he said.
The British establishment was furious, and it was the irascible Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who lead the fight-back. “Someone urgently needs to restore George Clooney’s marbles,” he said. “Here he is plugging a film about looted Nazi art without realizing that Goring himself had plans to plunder the British Museum. And where were the Nazis going to send the Elgin marbles? To Athens! This Clooney is advocating nothing less than the Hitlerian agenda for London’s cultural treasures. He should stuff the Hollywood script and stick to history.”
Most actors would have realized they were no expert and quietly backed away, but Mr. Clooney had no such intention. “I’m sure my right honorable friend had no real intention of comparing me to Hitler. I’d chalk it up to a little too much hyperbole washed down with a few whiskies,” he said.
In the most important scene of The Monuments Men, Mr. Clooney gathers his rag-tag team of art historians and soldiers and inspires them to risk their lives for the noble cause of art. “You can wipe out an entire generation, you can burn their homes to the ground and somehow they’ll still find their way back. But if you destroy their history—you destroy their achievements and it’s as if they never existed,” he said.
At a press conference in Athens on Wednesday, Mrs. Clooney said her husband would not be enlisted to help compile the legal brief she was writing for the Greek government. “I hope that even at this very early stage of the marriage, I’m wise enough to know that it’s up to my husband to decide which causes he chooses to support,” she said.
After two days in Athens, where she has been greeted like a Hollywood star in her own right, she said there should be no more delays in returning the statues to the refurbished museum. “It is sad to note that today, three years later, one of the most beautiful pieces of art in the world has still not been reunited for everyone to behold,” she said. “Greece has a just a cause and it’s high time for the British Museum to recognize this and return them. In a world of intractable conflicts, here is one that can be solved in a way that can benefit both parties and humankind altogether.”
Robertson, one of Britain’s foremost human rights lawyers who has contributed to The Daily Beast, was more forthright in his language, dismissing Elgin’s defense that he was protecting the monuments at a time when ammunition had been stored at the Parthenon and some even claim the building was used for target practice. “He was a bankrupt. He used his diplomatic position to get a license to take the Marbles and to profit personally by selling them to the British Museum,” Robertson said. “If he did that today, he would be in prison.”