They’ve been on display in the museums of former colonial powers for hundreds of years. But should these works of art be returned to the countries from which they were taken?
The Elgin Marbles
The Elgin Marbles are a series of sculptures that once adorned the walls of the Parthenon, a temple on the Acropolis in ancient Athens. Some depict the people of the time, others show scenes from Greek mythology. They stood in the Parthenon temple for hundreds of years. And then, in 1801, along came Thomas Bruce. He was the 7th Earl of Elgin, in northern Scotland. But for his day job, he was British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, which at the time included Athens. He took the marbles from the temple and sold them to the British Museum. In the years since then, the sculptures came to be known as the Elgin Marbles, although now, on the British Museum website, they’re referred to as the Parthenon Sculptures. The trouble is, Greece wants them back. In fact, Greek politicians have been campaigning for the return of the Parthenon sculptures ever since Thomas Bruce sold them. Recently, the Greek government hired human rights lawyer Amal Clooney to take Britain to the International Criminal Court. But when the country hit economic crisis, her contract was terminated. The issue remains unresolved.
The Koh-i-Noor Diamond
Koh-i-Noor means ‘Mountain of Light’ in Persian. But beware, this diamond comes with a curse. An ancient Hindu text says that only God or a woman can wear the diamond without severe consequences. Since it was mined in the thirteenth century, the 186-carat diamond has been owned by several Punjab kings in India…and many of those kings lost their thrones – or their lives. But in 1851, the Koh-i-Noor diamond came to be owned by a woman. Queen Victoria. It was set into her Imperial Crown, and has since been worn by many British queens, including the Queen Mother who wore it at the coronation of George VI in 1937. The Koh-i-Noor diamond is one of the biggest the world has ever seen, and some estimate its worth at £100million. And the Indian authorities want it back. Queen Victoria took possession of the diamond when the Punjab was annexed by the East India Company at the height of the Anglo-Sikh wars. In 2002, the Indian High Commissioner accused Britain of flaunting the unfairly gained spoils of its Empire when the diamond was carried on the Queen Mother’s coffin. And in 2010, the Indian authorities requested the diamond be returned to them, as atonement for Britain’s colonial past. David Cameron refused. To complicate the story further, authorities in Pakistan also claim rightful ownership of the diamond and this year filed a lawsuit for its return.
The Egyptian queen Nefertiti was famed throughout the ancient world for her bewitching, enticing and aloof beauty. So when a bust made in her image was discovered in 1913 by the German archeologist Ludwig Borchardt, it caused a sensation. Nefertiti had been just as beautiful as her legend said. Ludwig brought the bust home with him to Germany from Egypt. And since then, it’s had pride of place at the Neues Museum in Berlin where it attracts over a million visitors a year. Egypt has been campaigning for its return since 1930. Queen Nefertiti should have her home in the Land of Gods and Pharaohs. But Germany has always refused. They claim the 3,400-year-old bust is too delicate to make the trip back to Egypt. In 2011, the president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which runs the Neues Museum said, ‘Nefertiti is and remains the ambassador of Egypt in Berlin.’
The Winged Victory of Samothrace
It’s been described as the ‘greatest masterpiece’ of ancient Greek sculpture and was carved 200 years before the birth of Christ to celebrate a Greek naval victory over Egypt. The Winged Victory of Samothrace shows Nike, the ancient goddess of victory, mid-flight, and is thought to have once stood on an altar, or in a temple. It would also have had a head. A head that has now become lost to history. The statue was found in 1863 by the French archeologist Charles Champoiseau. He shipped it back to Paris. And ever since that day, it’s been kept in the Louvre Museum, looming over the Daru staircase which leads visitors to the Mona Lisa. Samothrace, the site of that ancient naval battle is in modern-day Macedonia. And since 1999, the people of Macedonia have been campaigning for their victory statue to be given back to them. Perhaps inevitably, the French government has always replied ‘non’. And so, the people of Samothrace will have to make do with a replica. Probably for the foreseeable.
The Sultanganj Buddha is also known, rather less glamorously, as the Buddha of Birmingham. It was cast in pure copper over 1,500 years ago by expert craftsmen in the Indian village Sultanganj and shows the Buddha with his right hand raised in a gesture of reassurance, protection and peace. The statue was discovered hidden in the remains of a temple by British engineers from the East Indian Railway Company in 1861. It was sent back to the UK and ended up at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. But the Archeological Survey of India wants it back. And they have the support of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The Indian authorities have said there is a need for a ‘diplomatic and legal campaign’ for its return.