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Europe: The Other Art Restitution Disputes

By Jan Cleave

Prague, 29 May 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Russia and Germany have been haggling over the return of so-called trophy art for the past five or so years, ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disclosures that cultural valuables seized by Soviet troops from Germany at the end of World War II were stashed away on Russian territory.

Recent reports about the discovery in Germany of a mosaic and cabinet allegedly from the Amber Room have led to speculation that an end to the dispute might now be in sight. But any one harboring such hopes would do well to remember that restitution wrangles elsewhere in Europe have often stretched over decades and, in some cases, are still nowhere close to being resolved.

One of the longest-running restitution disputes is between Britain and Greece over the so-called Elgin Marbles. At the beginning of last century, when Greece was still part of the Ottoman Empire, a British diplomat named Lord Elgin received permission from the Sultan to remove and ship back to Britain marble sculptures and friezes from the ruins of the famous Parthenon in Athens. Lord Elgin claimed he was saving the artworks from destruction wreaked by wars and the weather. The British government purchased the collection from him in 1816 and entrusted it to the British Museum "to be preserved and kept together."

Greece has long argued for, and more recently demanded, the return of the Elgin Marbles to their place of origin in the Greek capital. It says that the artworks were removed at a time when the country was occupied by a foreign power, which, as such, had no right to decide on their fate. Athens also points to reports that Lord Elgin bribed the local Turkish authorities to allow him to make off with the marbles. Greek Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos has said he intends to seek their return through political and legal procedures involving UNESCO, the EU, and the Council of Europe.

But British governments have consistently rejected such arguments, claiming the marbles were acquired legally and are better off in the British Museum than in heavily polluted Athens. Greek hopes that the new labor government of Tony Blair would take a more conciliatory stance were quickly dashed. While former labor leader Neil Kinnock announced in the early 1990s that a government under his leadership would return the artworks to Greece, Blair has proved to be as patriotically tight-fisted as recent Conservative prime ministers by making clear his government has no plans to give back the marbles.

Meanwhile, the Italian and Ethiopian governments recently resolved a restitution dispute that had lasted for more than half a century. At issue was an obelisk carted off from the ancient Ethiopian city of Aksum on the orders of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in 1937, just two years after Italy occupied that country. The obelisk was erected in Rome in front of Mussolini's short-lived Ministry for Africa, now the site of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

In 1947, Italy signed a UN peace treaty which provided for the return within 18 months of all loot taken from Ethiopia during the occupation. But the obelisk remained standing in the Italian capital for another 50 years, despite repeated Ethiopian appeals for its return to Aksum. In early spring of this year, the two sides reached an agreement in which Rome recognized the "central importance that the Ethiopian people and government attach to the return of the Obelisk" and agreed to assume responsibility for its restitution to Aksum by the end of 1997.

While many countries applauded Italy for taking this decision -- albeit belatedly -- others were afraid that a precedent would be set and that restitution demands would start flooding in. One of the most vocal opponents was Britain, which was doubtless concerned it would come under renewed pressure to return the Elgin Marbles. London went so far as to issue a statement urging Rome not to give back the obelisk.

Greece, for its part, has stressed it will not demand the restitution of the thousands of artworks removed from its territory and now adorning many of the world's leading museums. The Elgin Marbles are an exception, it argues, because they are an integral part of a unique Greek monument. At the same time, Athens has repeatedly dropped loud hints that it would be happy to receive back such outstanding artworks as the Venus of Milo, a marble statue that was removed by the French ambassador to Turkey in the 1820s and remains one of the Louvre Museum's prize exhibits.

Similarly, two of the principal attractions in Berlin's museums are strongly coveted, but have not been officially claimed, by their countries of origin. The altarpiece from the ancient Turkish city of Pergamon and the bust of Queen Nofretete from the ancient Egyptian city of Amarna were both discovered and removed by German archaeologists around the turn of this century. Neither Ankara nor Cairo has officially demanded their return, while Bonn has shown no willingness to make a goodwill gesture.

Nor has it shown any sign of making such a gesture in its ongoing restitution dispute with Moscow. When press reports emerged about the discovery of the alleged Amber Room mosaic and cabinet, it was hoped that Germany would hand over both pieces to Russia and thereby help expedite a resolution to the dispute. The German government, however, says no decision can be taken until the artworks' authenticity has been proven. A final report by a panel of experts is expected within the next two weeks, a German Foreign Ministry official told RFE/RL yesterday.