The Story of the Elgin Marbles Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Story of the Elgin Marbles

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'The Elgin Marbles' is the name given to some priceless sculptures of Phidias that once adorned the Parthenon, the most important religious monument in the Acropolis, which stands on the high ground of Athens, in Greece, as it has for roughly 2,500 years. So, why are they called Elgin? Well, in 1800, a British aristocrat called Thomas Bruce, who happened to be the 7th Earl of Elgin, travelled to Greece and, depending on your point of view, bought them at a knock-down price, or stole them with the help of some sky-high bribes. Whichever interpretation of events you believe, there is no doubt that he imported them from Greece to Great Britain, sold them on to the British Museum in London and, in the way of most European 18th Century voyagers, was flattered to have his name attributed to them.

The good people of Athens take the view that the evil Earl was a thief, and so want the marbles returned immediately, but the grand people of the British Museum are clear they were fairly bought and insist on keeping them, mostly 'because they will be properly cared for'. The politicians of both countries are stymied: on the one hand there is clearly no point in losing friends over some nicely carved rocks, but on the other hand, if they are returned, can anyone be sure that they will be properly cared for?

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