HC Deb 21 November 1983 vol 49 cc16-8
30. Sir David Price

asked the Under-Secretary of State answering in respect of the Arts, what reasons the Greek Government have given to Her Majesty's Government in support of their request that the Elgin marbles should be handed over to them without payment; and what has been Her Majesty's Government's reply.

33. Mr. Murphy

asked the Under-Secretary of State answering in respect of the Arts, if he will make a statement on the request by the Greek Government for the return of the Elgin marbles.

Mr. Waldegrave

A formal request for the return of the Elgin marbles was made by the Greek ambassador on 12 October. It will, of course, receive careful consideration. As my noble Friend said in Parliament recently, the Government are aware of no general wish to change the existing powers of the British museum's trustees, and do not propose to seek authority to do so.

Sir David Price

Will my hon. Friend and the Government remind the Greek Government that—no Elgin, no marbles, no British museum no marbles? Will he also remind them that the present level of sulphur dioxide in the Athenian atmosphere is as destructive of what remains of the Parthenon as was the Venetian gunfire, the Turkish gunpowder, and the plunderers and marauders—the Greek people themselves—on the remains of the Parthenon in the past?

Mr. Waldegrave

I can only add one group to my hon. Friend's conprehensive list of those who have damaged the Parthenon—perhaps the worst of all were those who converted it into a church in 450 AD. As I understand it, the Greek Government have not proposed replacing the marbles on the Parthenon if they were to be returned. They would have to be kept in a museum in Athens.

Mr. Murphy

Does my hon. Friend agree that the emotion that is being shown demonstrates that, in more ways than one, the Greeks have lost their marbles? Does he agree that it would be more helpful if the Greek Government appreciated the realistic and legal approach that Lord Elgin adopted towards these valuable marbles?

Mr. Waldegrave

The Government will, of course, give the Greek Government's request serious consideration.

Mr. Foot

Does the Minister agree that the supplementary questions that have been asked by Conservative Members merely add insult to the injuries that have been inflicted on us all? Is he able to recall that the circumstances and the manner in which the so-called Elgin marbles were taken from Greece were bitterly denounced at the time by most leading English people, headed by Lord Byron? Is he further aware that Lord Byron pronounced a terrible curse on those who were engaged in the transaction? Will the Minister undertake to ensure that the Government will seriously examine the proposition that has been made by a friendly, democratic country?

Mr. Waldegrave

Lord Byron may have been against it, but the right hon. Gentleman doubtless knows that a Select Committee which looked into the matter believed that the marbles had been acquired legally. What my hon. Friends say is doubted by few—if the marbles had not been taken away they would have been more seriously damaged.

Mr. Jessel

Will my hon. Friend repudiate the suggestion of the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) that injuries were inflicted, when the fact is that Britain saved the marbles after many years of neglect, decay and dilapidation? Does he agree that they were deteriorating under many centuries of Greek rule as well as under Turkish rule?

Mr. Waldegrave

I do not think that there is any disagreement between the British Government and the Greek Government about the danger that the marbles were in at that time.

Mr. Faulds

To take this matter seriously, does the Minister not consider that it might be time to accept that there is an argument in Third world countries and others that a limited range of objects should be returned? Is it not likely that if we in the West do not draw up a limited range of objects for restitution, we shall eventually face commercial and economic pressures to do so when dealing with other matters?

Mr. Waldegrave

The hon. Gentleman is right. This matter raises wide and general issues. That is why we must consider carefully the implications for the British museum and other great international collections.

Mr. Fallon

From which Government does my hon. Friend think a similar request might be made in respect of the horses of St. Mark's square, Venice?

Mr. Waldegrave

A large number of Governments, including the Egyptian and Turkish, might have rival claims in that case.

Mr. Canavan

Is it not a historical fact that Lord Elgin used his position as British ambassador to get his hands on the Parthenon marbles, without the consent of the people of Greece, and that he then proceeded to sell them to the British Government for £35,000? Will the Government now, belatedly, do the decent thing and send the marbles back to Greece so that they can be exhibited in their homeland? Should the Government not make reparation for an act of piracy by Lord Elgin, which even Byron described as plundering the Parthenon to decorate a villa in Scotland?

Mr. Waldegrave

It was not described as plunder by the Select Committee which looked into the matter, nor have I ever heard any serious criticism of the way in which the British museum displays the marbles.