HL Deb 22 March 1994 vol 553 cc580-3

2.42 p.m.

Lord Spens asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether it is their policy to facilitate the return of the Rosetta Stone to Egypt.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, it is the view of Her Majesty's Government that the Rosetta Stone, which was legitimately acquired, should remain in the British Museum.

Lord Spens

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that rather depressing Answer. Is she aware that of the 100,000 or so artefacts on display in Cairo's extraordinary Museum of Antiquities, the only copy on display is that of the Rosetta Stone, which is a rather poor copy to boot? If the noble Baroness were to be asked formally by the Egyptian authorities, would she consider discussing some form of exchange—either a permanent or temporary loan—with that museum for some of its artefacts, which I suspect might be more of a draw to the British Museum than that rather dull old lump of basalt?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, the answer to the first part of the noble Lord's question is yes; and the answer to the second part is no.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, have the Government been asked officially for the return of that stone? I have not read anything about it.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, the noble Lord is correct. There has been no official request for its return.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many Egyptians welcome the universal admiration for their ancient civilisation which is furthered by the existence of ancient Egyptian artefacts in many museums in the world? Will she welcome, as I do, the words of His Excellency the Egyptian Ambassador? He spoke at the British Museum this year and said that the Egyptians take pride in the British Museum's collection, which they see as contributing to the world appreciation of Egyptian culture?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Renfrew for his fascinating, intelligent and perspicacious remarks.

Lord Mowbray and Stourton

My Lords, perhaps I may be bold and cast a little grit in the nice oily welcome the Question seems to have been given. But how can the Government say that the stone was acquired legitimately? I gather that it was acquired at the peace of Amiens—was it in 1802?—when Napoleon Bonaparte, as he then was—the general commanding the French army—who had invaded Egypt took it. As your Lordships probably know, he took two dozen scientists, and the one thing that they wanted was the Rosetta Stone. When Napoleon escaped with his favourite generals, did he not take back with him the Rosetta Stone? Therefore he had no legitimate interest in it. How, I ask myself, were the British Government entitled to say that they had acquired it legitimately?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I am absolutely fascinated by my noble friend's question because I gave him the very information just before this Question Time began. I repeat the answer. We acquired it legitimately, and the Egyptians have not asked for it back.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, will the noble Baroness inform her noble friend that it is always difficult to unstitch the fabric of history and to decide what was acquired legitimately? Otherwise, perhaps certain Members of the House would not be here. Does she agree that we do not want gestures of gratuitous generosity on a one-off basis, and that what would be helpful would be to have a multilateral agreement among all the relevant countries to decide upon what basis and in what circumstances some cultural objects might appropriately be returned?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, as the noble Lord may be aware, there is a draft UNIDROIT convention which is attempting to address the problem of the public law provisions for such matters. It has been working for some time. We have participated in the work that it has been doing, but I cannot anticipate whether the UK will eventually become a signatory, but we shall certainly try to work to the end of the UNIDROIT convention, and hope that it will have a satisfactory result.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, is my noble friend acquainted with recent reports which suggest that the treasures which are in the Cairo museum are being neglected badly owing to the Egyptian Government's lack of resources? Would it not be far better if more such treasures were in museums in countries where they can be preserved properly?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I should never dream of criticising another nation. I merely say that we must not be greedy.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that I warmly agree with the sentiment that she has just uttered? In fact, this country is seen as having been rather greedy in regard to such matters in the past and as dragging our feet over the restoration of objects which are of national importance to the countries concerned. In that respect, if we are going to change our attitude, would not it be a good idea to start with the Elgin Marbles?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, a Question on the Elgin Marbles is coming up, and I should hate to spoil that opportunity.

Lord Morris

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that I am certain that she will recall that the Rosetta Stone provided the key to the deciphering and translation of Egyptian hieroglyphics, and that the man who largely did that work was Thomas Young, of England, and a Frenchman called Jean Francois Champollion? As such, the stone is an international treasure which could not be nurtured better than by the British Museum.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I have no argument with my noble friend's statement.

Earl Alexander of Tunis

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that this is a dangerous precedent to set because the Sovereign's jewels have come from abroad?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I can give your Lordships answers on the Cullinan diamond, the Koh-i-noor, the Sphinx's Beard, Cleopatra's Needle, the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles, Turkish sculptures, the Canning Marbles; and all of them have been acquired legitimately.