February 25, 2000

Turkey has offered to support Greece in its efforts to recover the Elgin marbles from their 200-year sojourn in the British Museum.

Ironically it was the Ottoman Empire - as the occupying power - that made a deal with Lord Elgin that allowed him to take the marbles to London. Greece feels that the promised Turkish support is an obligation.

Turkey's pledge was almost certainly motivated by politics rather than an enthusiasm for Greek culture.

Geoffrey Pridham, director of the centre for Mediterranean studies at the University of Bristol, said the Turkish statement had to be seen in the context of "the changing general state of relations with Greece over the past year and more.

"There is a serious attempt at rapprochement between them. It is obviously linked on the Turkish side with the aim of entering the European Union," said Professor Pridham.

The question of looted and relooted treasures is a sensitive one. Settling such disputes can involve long and delicate negotiations. Poland, for example, has more than 700 claims outstanding against Germany. Amicable resolutions, such as the return of the Arnamagnean collection of saga manuscripts from Denmark to Iceland, are all too rare.

Tim Schadla-Hall, a specialist in public archaeology at the institute of archaeology at University College London, found it more disturbing that "scholarly" and "artistic" looting continues today.

He said: "I am not so much concerned with the distant past and the fact that looting occurred but with the fact that today we acknowledge that looting other people's pasts is morally wrong.

"Yet our current government last week refused to ratify either the Unesco convention of 1970 (on the means of prohibiting and preventing the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property) or Unidroit (a convention on stolen and illegally exported cultural objects) of 1995, which would go towards preventing the mass looting of other people's cultural heritage today."

The government, said Mr Schadla-Hall, "seems incapable of making a simple moral gesture. One might almost believe this is a conspiracy between politicians and the art market."

Vera Rich

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