Greece is seeking repatriation of the Elgin Marbles from the British Museum, taken from the Parthenon by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin. Since 1816, the British Museum has held the Parthenon Marbles ("In Britain, the acquisition of the collection was supported by some, while other critics compared The British Consul at Greece Elgin's actions to vandalism or looting", text from the Marbles article), and, despite the tortuous and ill-explained path from Greece to England, the museum strongly defends its right to own and display the marbles.
The 20-year feud concerns the ownership of 44 artefacts from the Sixena Monastery, a Romanesque jewel in the heart of Aragon, less than 30 miles away from the trenches where George Orwell fought during the Spanish Civil War. The works of art (paintings on panel and canvas, sculptures, reliquiaries) are currently kept in the Museum of Lleida, in Catalonia, some of them on display and many in storage. The condition of some is frail, the historic significance and value of most is enormous.
Some argue that in colonized states, nationalist archaeology was used to resist colonialism and racism under the guise of evolution. While it is true that both colonialist and nationalist discourse use the artifact to form mechanisms to sustain their contending political agendas, there is a danger in viewing them interchangeably since the latter was a reaction and form of resistance to the former. On the other hand, it is important to realize that in the process of emulating the mechanisms of colonial discourse, the nationalist discourse produced new forms of power. In the case of the Egyptian nationalist movement, the new form of power and meaning that surrounded the artifact furthered the Egyptian independence cause but continued to oppress the rural Egyptian population.
A precedent for art repatriation was set in Roman antiquity when Cicero prosecuted Verres, a senate member and illegal appropriator of art. Cicero's speech influenced Enlightenment European thought and had an indirect impact on the modern debate about art repatriation. Cicero's argument uses military episodes of plunder as "case law" and expresses certain standards when it comes to appropriating cultural property of another people. Cicero makes a distinction between public and private uses of art and what is appropriate for each and he also asserts that the primary purpose of art is religious expression and veneration. He also sets standards for the responsibilities of imperial administration abroad to the code of ethics surrounding the collection of art from defeated Greece and Rome in wartime. Later, both Napoleon and Lord Elgin would be likened to Verres in condemnations of their plundering of art.
China, for example, while agitating for the return of cultural properties exported from its lands, has ignored the archaeological history of the Uighur minority within its borders and instead has collected and exhibited ancient objects that endorse the reigning Han Chinese. Meanwhile, Cuno asserts, China’s ostensible care for its material past is belied by the government’s failure to control the internal looting and sale of artifacts and by projects such as the Three Gorges Dam, which upon its completion will flood as many as 1,300 archaeological sites. Similarly, he argues, Greece’s calls for the return of the Elgin Marbles from Britain, where they have been located since the early 19th century, are born of nationalist greed: Greek authorities want the marbles back not in the interests of archaeological consistency, but in order to confer ancient legitimacy on their modern government. The objects are co-opted as a “political symbol of the new Greece . . . said to belong to Greece and to hold within them the very spirit of its people.”
According to Roman myth, Rome was founded by Romulus, the first victor to dedicate spoils taken from an enemy ruler to the Temple of Jupiter Feretrius. In Rome's many subsequent wars, blood-stained armor and weaponry were gathered and placed in temples as a symbol of respect toward the enemies' deities and as a way to win their patronage. As Roman power spread throughout Italy where Greek cities once reigned, Greek art was looted and ostentatiously displayed in Rome as a triumphal symbol of foreign territories brought under Roman rule. However, the triumphal procession of Marcus Claudius Marcellus after the fall of Syracuse in 211 is believed to have set a standard of reverence to conquered sanctuaries as it engendered disapproval by critics and a negative social reaction.