Britain Has Lost Its Marbles: Elgin Loan Will Appease Putin

Geoffrey Robertson and Amal Clooney helped Greece fight for the return of the Elgin Marbles. Britain refuses to listen, but has shocked the art world by secretly loaning one of the antiquities to Russia.

Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty

The British Museum, in total secrecy but in collaboration with The Times of London, has moved the River God Illisos from his plinth in the Duveen Gallery to St. Petersburg for a celebration of the Russian art collection at the Hermitage. This raises two issues: firstly, why give a propaganda windfall to President Putin at a time when his breaches of international law can only be deterred by sanctions that are beginning to bite? Secondly, if a part of the marbles can now been seen for the next two months by visiting St. Petersburg, why should all surviving pieces of the greatest art in world history not be seen, reunited, at the Acropolis Museum under a blue attic sky and in the shadow of the Parthenon?

The British Museum claims that “cultural diplomacy” can somehow discourage human rights violators. This is nonsense—it tends to embolden them. In 2010 the museum lent the Cyrus Cylinder to Iran, only to have it welcomed by a pageant staged by President Ahmadinejad, in which Cyrus wore the insignia of the Basij militia, which the previous year had brutally beaten and killed hundreds of “Green Movement” demonstrators. This loan has done nothing to deter the hardliners: just ask the current occupants of Evin prison. It is not clear how Putin will capitalise on the naked torso of the River God after its unveiling—presumably not by striking the same pose, given its missing genitalia. But the event will be a cultural triumph for the man who a few years ago, closed down the British Council in St. Petersburg and had its director arrested.

The arguments for “cultural diplomacy” of this kind are similar to the discredited claims for “sporting diplomacy” by those who wanted to play cricket with apartheid South Africa. In the case of Russia, still fomenting war in Eastern Ukraine, isolating sanctions are the only realistic way that Europe can respond in an effort to save lives. In this context, and at this time, the action by Neil MacGregor and his Trustees might seem not merely naïve, but irresponsible.

According to The Times, the British government was informed. If so, why did David Cameron, the prime minister, not expose the museum’s plan (hatched a year ago) and stop the temporary export—an action which would have served to emphasise his policy of isolating Russia? The museum claims that its trustees are beyond government control, but this is not correct: licences are necessary for export of cultural property, certainly outside the European Union and even for temporary purposes. Were any licences applied for? What were the terms of the loan—did the Hermitage pay and if not, why not? The museum, as a public institution, must answer these questions. As for the government, which could have stopped the temporary export, it should explain why it was permitted to go ahead in the teeth of other sanctions against Russia.

The claim that the British Museum is totally independent is useful for government buck-passing when taxed at international conferences about return of the Parthenon Marbles. “That is a matter solely for the trustees” is always its response. But since the government has now permitted the River God to leave the U.K., that excuse can no longer wash.

Which brings us to the second question raised by the loan and indeed to Neil MacGregor’s incautious confession as he posed for The Times photographers whilst surveying Illisos in its new location: “It looks much better than it does in London.” Indeed it does. In London it is located in the Duveen Gallery where half the extant marbles sit under white light as if in a morgue. This was at the insistence of Lord Duveen, a crooked art dealer who made his money by shady dealings with the Nazis and who insisted in 1938 on scouring some of the friezes, permanently damaging them. If the River God looks so much better at the Hermitage, how much better would he look—along with all the other statues captured by Lord Elgin—back with his counterparts in the New Acropolis Museum?

This loan, however, is welcome to the extent that it gives the museum’s game away. It cannot sensibly or morally refuse the mediation offered by UNESCO, to which the British government has been asked to respond by 31st March next year. That response was always going to be “it’s entirely a matter for the trustees”. But now that the trustees and the government seem to have colluded in the departure of the River God, they can obviously agree for the museum to proceed to a non-binding mediation which could result in some mutually satisfactory departure, even temporarily, of Lord Elgin’s loot.

The Parthenon Marbles are a unique snapshot of the beginning of human civilisation—a picture of conversation, laughter, embraces and lots of drinking, without violence other than resistance to satyrs who try to invade a wedding feast. But the picture is torn in half by the geographic separation of the friezes. It is in the interest of the world, and not just of Greece, that they be reunited.

Geoffrey Robertson QC has provided legal advice to the Greek government. His latest book is An Inconvenient Genocide: Who Now Remembers The Armenians? (Biteback)