Winner Takes All in the World of Antiquities

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I reckon it must have been some twenty years ago. A sunny August afternoon (highly unusual for Scotland) found me playing cricket in the grounds of a great Scottish country house. After tea on the lawn, we were invited inside to view the crowded interior and, there, lo and behold, high up on the wall of a reception room, above the dado rail, was a marble panel. Although I was surprised at the time to be told it was a part of the so-called Elgin Marbles, stripped out of the Parthenon in Athens, I did not feel affronted to find it there. After all, the Greeks are a thoroughly charming but, ultimately, unreliable lot and I was confident that the titled owner of the house would do all in his considerable power to preserve the panels. A rather more po-faced member of our team muttered darkly about moral obligations to return such items whence they came, but the general view was that it probably had been  rather better off there than rotting in some Greek glory hole.

In more recent years, the debate has really hotted up on the issue of repatriation of culturally important items to the countries which lost them in troubled times. In this new book, Tiffany Jenkins, a writer and academic, examines individual historic events and the issues, moral and legal, surrounding them. She casts her net pretty much worldwide to engage with specific occasions on which items were removed from the custody of their owners. This was, of course, in a world rather different from our present one. It was a world where winner took all. If you got beat on the battlefield, the victor was perfectly entitled to make off with all your clobber: treasures, art works, military gear and, if they took his fancy, your wives, concubines and, even, your pet dogs.

Such was the case, of course, with one of the Imperial Pekinese dogs which was ‘dognapped’ during the sacking of the Chinese Imperial Summer Palace in December 1860. It was hauled off to Britain by the victors and presented to Her Majesty Queen Victoria at her summer home in Scotland, Balmoral. The captive animal was, somewhat insensitively, named ‘Looty’ and came to symbolise British superiority over the Chinese, and is immortalised in paintings held in the Royal Collection.

Rt Hon Lady Loch

The present Lady Loch, descended from Henry, 1st Lord Loch who was aide de camp to Lord Elgin who ordered the destruction of Yuanminguan. In the background are two Imperial roof tiles taken from Yuanminguan.

This was not the real prize, of course. It is estimated that up to one and a half million artefacts were hauled off from the dozens of buildings and pleasure grounds which made up Yuanminguan. This was intended as a signal punishment to the Chinese (who had imprisoned a truce party headed up by Henry Loch, later Lord Loch, and killed some of his group and horribly tortured the others). It turned out to be a wanton orgy of mass destruction and pillage. Tens of thousands of objects were removed from the site by British and French troops. Sadly, far more were simply destroyed which was, of course, unforgivable. The commander who ordered the destruction was Lord Elgin, whose own father had claimed the Elgin Marbles. The whole incident is well dealt with by Tiffany Jenkins at some length and in rather more detail than other currently available accounts (and, hooray, she has footnotes which are something of a dying breed these days).

As far as provenance goes, items removed from Yuanminguan enjoy just about as good a provenance as it is possible to get. That is largely because the incident still deeply rankles with the Chinese and is conspicuously high on their consciousness. They want all their stuff back and have, in the last few years, been buying back Imperial Summer Palace pieces; been in receipt of donations and, indeed, some Yuanminguan pieces held in public and in private have been specifically stolen, quite possibly to order.

s200_tiffany_jenkins Author Tiffany Jenkins

There are, of course, very many issues to be raised. Theft is, rightly, a crime in the context of our private lives. States, however, are not private individuals and are allowed to wreak revenge on behalf of their subjects. Quite apart from legal implications (and China and the UK rarely cooperate in the field of legal obligation hence the widespread intellectual theft which goes on), there may be moral considerations. It is here we get into very deep water indeed. Should items be returned to the country of origin where they arguably constitute an irrevocable part of its culture and history? Or, should museums, where pieces remain more or less permanently on display, be regarded as international centres of knowledge in demonstration of the fact that no object has a single home and no one culture has an inalienable right to its own culture which might be seen as a part of a shared global heritage?

This book is really strong on the examination of the difficult issues posed by culture and the supposed rights of ownership of part of it. The individual case studies make good reading and it is written in an easy style which will serve to make it widely available. Unlike the statues and columns of Palmyra and Nineveh. They would have been rather better off in The British Museum.

Paul Harris

keeping their marbles1