HC Deb 07 July 1986 vol 101 cc14-5
45. Mr. David Atkinson

asked the Minister for the Arts what recent representations he has received from his Greek counterpart on the future of the Parthenon marbles.

Mr. Luce

There have been no formal representations from the Greek Government on the future of the Parthenon marbles since Her Majesty's Government's reply to the request for their return through UNESCO in October 1985.

Mr. Atkinson

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Parthenon marbles are housed in nine museums in six countries? Does he agree that the Greek representations would be a little more credible, and the Labour party's response a little less pathetic, if similar requests were made to the Governments of all six countries in which the marbles are housed?

Mr. Luce

My hon. Friend is right, to the extent that the British museum possesses only about 50 per cent. of all the Parthenon sculptures. Apart from some in Greece, the rest of them—at least nine — are placed in other European centres. My hon. Friend is right on that. However, I must also ask whether the Opposition have considered the precedent that would be set if the marbles were returned. What would be left of the British national collections in many areas?

Mr. Robert Sheldon

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that if the marbles were to be returned to the Parthenon that would be one matter; but, as that is not practicable, to move them out of one museum and put them into another does not make much sense? Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that if we were to pursue that line of cultural apartheid many works of art might leave our shores, and all that we would get in return would be a few statues of Queen Victoria and possibly old London bridge?

Mr. Luce

The right hon. Gentleman puts the point most effectively. That would set a precedent, which would lead to a major reduction in our great national collections, in which all the objects, including the Elgin marbles, have been acquired legally. The right hon. Gentleman should also put that question to his hon. Friend the Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan), who appears to be committed to the return of the Elgin marbles.

Mr. Jessel

As it is clear that the British museum has looked after the Elgin marbles very well for 150 years, can my right hon. Friend say what sort of care was given to them by the locals when the marbles were in Greece?

Mr. Luce

It would not be right for me to comment on that in detail, but I can say that the museum looks after the marbles magnificently. It has an excellent conservation service. Moreover, what is really important is that they were acquired legally, and it would require an Act of Parliament to change the position to compel the trustees to return them. I do not believe that that would be the wish of this Parliament.

Mr. Buchan

Rather a lot of rubbish has been talked, and it will be difficult to deal with all the rubbish in a short reply. May I point out, in the form of a question as a reply to the Minister, that when it is argued that the marbles were legally acquired, in fact they were sold by an occupying country? In other words, would the Minister say that the pictures that were removed by the Third Reich from Holland, Belgium and France, which, among other things, had been acquired by Goering, had been legally acquired? We said that they should have gone back to the countries of origin. In the same way, we believe that the marbles properly belong to Greece and that more British people will see them in Athens than in London. We unswervingly adhere to the proposition that they should be returned.

Mr. Luce

It is firmly established that the Elgin marbles were legally acquired under the sovereignty of the Ottoman empire as it was at that time. In 1816 the British Parliament passed an Act of Parliament that gave the authority to the British museum to retain the Elgin marbles.