EARLIER this week it was revealed that Greece wanted the return of the Elgin Marbles to become part of the negotiations for a Brexit trade deal.

A clause was inserted into the European Union’s mandate which stated that both sides will “address issues relating to the return or restitution of unlawfully removed cultural objects to their countries of origin.”

The Greek Government denied that the clause directly related to the Elgin Marbles as they consider the issue to be a matter of bilateral negotiation between the UK and Greece, which had been demanding the return of the Marbles for decades – indeed the Greek Government has already installed a ‘waiting space’ to house the Marbles on the Acropolis in Athens from where they were removed between 1807 and 1812 by agents acting for Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin.

The National: Greece has laid claim to the Elgin Marbles

Spain and Cyprus are also supporting the Greeks and you can tell the Tory Government are worried by the shrill nature of their proclamations that the Marbles are going nowhere.

Still, yet another unintended consequence of Brexit may be the British Museum being denuded of one of its biggest attractions.

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The sculptures are considered one of the great works of ancient civilization and are currently displayed in a custom-built wing of the British Museum.


A CAREER diplomat, in 1798 Elgin was appointed ambassador to the court of Selim III, the Sultan of Turkey. Greece was at that time part of the Ottoman Empire, and Elgin made a considerable impression on Selim. Elgin was a cultured individual and was genuinely appalled at the state of the Parthenon on the Acropolis, the temple having been turned into a military fort.

He asked for permission to get artists onto the site to record all the ancient treasures, and in 1801 was given a decree from the Sultan – known as a firman – which authorised Elgin’s people to erect scaffoldings and make drawings and moulds and, crucially, that they could remove pieces of stone with old inscriptions or figures.

Elgin interpreted the firman as allowing him to take more or less what he wanted. He embarked on a long-term project to remove what became known as the Parthenon Marbles to decorate the new home he was building, Broomhall House, near Dunfermline in Fife.

The National: The Elgin Marbles statue of Ilissos is being loaned to Russia (British Museum/PA)

Opponents of Elgin’s actions included Greek dignitaries and the poet Lord Byron who essentially said Elgin was a vandal.

Lord Elgin had estimated the cost of shipping and bribery to get the marbles back to the UK cost him £74,000, which would be close to £1million today.

After several setbacks, including a costly divorce, Elgin sold the Marbles to the British Government for £35,000, or half of what it cost him to bring them from Greece to London. In the eyes of the Government, Elgin acted legally and the Marbles were bought with taxpayers’ money after assurances that all was above board.

The current Greek Government insists that Elgin’s ownership of ancient sculptures and frieze panels was illegal as Greece was then an occupied country and that the Marbles should be given back in the same way that, for example, Nazi-looted art has been restored to Jewish families.


IT’S not going to happen. For a start, the Elgin Marbles, like Scotland’s fisheries and the future of Gibraltar, will be mere bagatelles in the forthcoming Brexit trade discussions.

The National:

Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings will happily sacrifice all three if it gains them the trading rights that the City of London is angling for, and there’s no chance of the Tory Government risking a ‘no deal’ Brexit over the British Museum’s collection – unless, of course, that is what they want.


WITH the UK out of the EU, Europe’s two leading nations, France and Germany, are the next biggest ‘looters’, with France particularly exposed thanks to the Emperor Napoleon’s greed as he tried to turn Paris into the capital of his European empire.

Systematically taking art from every city and country he conquered, Napoleon was probably the second most rapacious dictator of all time, behind Adolf Hitler.

Napoleon’s looted artworks – mostly from Italy - aren’t just in Paris. His brother Louis Bonaparte donated art to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and his other brother Joseph helped to found what became the Prado in Madrid, both brothers using Napoleon’s art thefts.

Then again France could argue that the UK owes them another world-famous treasure, the Rosetta Stone, taken from the French during the Napoleonic Wars.

It’s another Brexit mess, you may conclude.


THERE’S a lot of wee chaps in the British Museum which, like the Elgin Marbles, are icons of Scottish culture – the Lewis Chessmen, 12th-century chess pieces that were discovered in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis.

Let’s just say Scotland becomes an independent country within the EU. As part of the negotiations over the end of the UK, the Elgin Marbles clause could be brought into play, only for us, it would be over the Lewis Chessmen.

In return, we could allow rUK to take their Trident missiles home to the Thames or the Mersey rather than the Clyde. Seems only fair.