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August 03, 2004

The Elgin Marbles are going to Tennessee

Posted by Christie Davies

Prof. Christie Davies considers an American future for the Elgin Marbles.

The British and the Greeks have long been locked in conflict over the future of the Elgin marbles, which used to decorate the original Parthenon in Athens but are now in the British Museum in London. These prancing warriors in marble, together with sundry full-bosomed caryatids in support, were acquired by Lord Elgin, a peer of Scottish descent, in the early nineteenth century at a time when Greece was still an obscure province of the far flung Turkish Ottoman Empire and the indigent and uncultured citizens of Athens were using marble statues as doorposts or as raw material for cement. The British Museum view is that they were acquired legally and that Elgin rescued them from the neglect and rapacity of a Balkan nation having no real links with the original Athenians. In their view the Greeks didn't and don't deserve them. The Greeks reply that the marbles are part of their national ancestral heritage and should be returned to the Parthenon in Athens where they belong rather than being scrubbed white with brillo pads in the British Museum. The Greeks don't mind ethnic cleansing by their fellow Orthodox Slavs in Serbia but they don't want it applied cavalierly to Greek statuary. They have the support of those Labour M.P.s who don't know what the Elgin Marbles are and until recently the backing of one of President Clinton's scriptwriters. He doesn't know either but fancies a relationship with a caryatid.

The problem with the Greek proposal for repatriation is that the air pollution in modern grid-locked Athens is worse than anywhere else in Europe and the concentration of acid in the local atmosphere is approaching that of the planet Venus. Were the Elgin marbles to be hoisted back onto their original position on the walls of the Parthenon, they would literally dissolve into blurred featureless blobs within a decade. A hoof here, a Grecian nose there, an arm, a leg, a bridle, would crumble away until the walls of the Parthenon would be bare once again. The Greek government has offered to store them instead in a hermetically sealed perspex dome with air locks like a space station through which museum visitors could enter and leave without letting the acrid fumes of Athens get at the statuary. Given the Greeks' totally incompetent record in assembling the facilities for the 2004 Olympics, no one is ever going to trust them not to leave the door open to let the marbles rot while the caretaker pops out for a cigarette-full of smelly European Union subsidised Greek tobacco. Fifty workers have already lost their lives building the Olympic structures in Athens compared with a total of three in Sydney and Barcelona put together. If you can not trust the Greeks with human life, how can you trust them with human statues?

The British Museum are not willing to lose their marbles, for if they do, claims will be made to all their other treasures. The Burmese would want their Buddhas back, the Egyptians would cry for their mummies, and even the Silures, Atrebates and Iceni might demand the return of their art and artifacts.

An unusual solution to this dilemma has been suggested by the Greek –American multi-billionaire Evyenios Papadakis. He is going to offer to buy the Elgin marbles from the British Museum for twenty billion dollars provided he is granted permission to export them to the United States. The Papadakis family who have lived for many years now partly in the Bahamas and partly in Washington D.C. were originally currant and sultana merchants in Smyrna. They later became in turn wholesale grocers in Alexandria, coal importers in Aden, dock-owners in Valetta and suppliers of cigars to His Royal and Imperial Majesty Edward VII, King of Great Britain and Ireland and Emperor of India. Soon this family of merchant princes owned a fleet of ships based in Trondheim but registered in Monrovia, steel-works in Bilbao, a refinery in Suez, jute-mills in Dundee and Dacca and several of the chemical plants in Piraeus that have helped to create the notorious Athenian smog; a truly international economic empire. In recent years the family have completely withdrawn from active participation in commerce and their vast wealth is held in a trust based in Liechtenstein and administered by their own bank. Evyenios Papadakis has thus been able to devote his life to the collection of art and antiques.

Papadakis' decision to buy the Elgin marbles was determined by two recent vivid aesthetic experiences. The first was when he dreamed that a Caryatid, a female statue in the British Museum, had come to life and wept to find herself so far from Athens. Papadakis knew as well as anyone that it was impossible for her ever to be reunited with Athens because of the smog, but last autumn he toured Alabama and Tennessee taking in the Elvisian fields of Memphis and enjoying the sophisticated charm of the South that is so lacking elsewhere in the United States. Finally he came to Nashville, Tennessee and there he saw the other side of his dream a smog-free civilized city with a full-scale replica of the Parthenon that spoke to him of the ancient Athens of Socrates and Aristotle. Not Athens, Greece but Nashville, Tennessee was the true heir to the city of Pericles, and its nineteenth century Parthenon an ideal frame for the Elgin marbles.

Papadakis returned to England determined to buy the Elgin marbles and to present them to Nashville, Tennessee. Once again the New World would resolve the conflicts of the Old. It is not yet known how the British Museum will respond to Papadakis' offer but there is a good chance that they will accept. In Blairite Britain they are going to need the money. The Greeks are their defence against the Philistines. As Britain sinks ever deeper into the mire, her own art treasures are haemorrhaging abroad to enrich the collections of wealthy museums and individuals in Texas, Korea, Ireland and Ontario . Papadakis' money will enable the British Museum to bid successfully against them in the auction rooms of London, for the heirlooms of Britain's dying peers. As Major-General Sir Corfiot Trevizars-Smith aptly remarked a posteriori when he learned that one of his men had shot and wounded the Rokeby Venus, 'Vita brevis est, ars longa'. England's extremity is Tennessee's opportunity and thanks to George Papadakis, the Elgin marbles will soon come to grace a new old Parthenon in Nashville.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain. His work has also been published in Greece in both English and Greek and he has been a visiting lecturer in the American South.


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Brilliant. This man - Prof. Christie Davies - has obviously chosen the wrong career. He should not have been an academic but a newspaper sketch writer.

Posted by: David Wedburn at August 4, 2004 10:43 AM
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At least the weather is right in Tennessee!

Posted by: James Moore at August 4, 2004 02:20 PM
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Currants and sultana trading must be a profitable business

Posted by: Dan Hetherington at August 8, 2004 11:29 AM
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