ATHENS, Greece - They convened in Greece last week from more than a dozen countries to search for a way to "right a historic wrong" or, in a contrary view, "to open a Pandora's box of cultural nationalism."
The occasion was the first international conference on "The Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles." The participants represented more than a dozen countries - all those of Western Europe, the United States, Australia, Canada, Israel, India, Japan and, of course, Greece.
The bare facts of the issue are these: In 1801, Thomas Bruce, seventh earl of Elgin, became ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (which then controlled Greece) and stripped the Parthenon, perhaps the world's most famous building, of its exquisite marble sculptures, metopes and friezes. They are the most important exhibit in the British Museum, where they have been on display since 1816, adding insult to Greek injury, as the Elgin Marbles.
Now Greece wants them back, and there is a growing belief that it is going to get them.
The Greek claim has broad support. In Britain, polls indicate that 80 percent of her majesty's subjects would like to see the marbles returned to Greece.
Two main issues are involved: First, if the British were to yield to moral or legal pressure and surrender the Parthenon treasures, what sort of precedent would this set? Would the world's great museums then be obliged to ship their priceless artifacts back to the country of origin? Would Paris' Louvre, for example, have to send the Venus de Milo back to Greece, and the Mona Lisa to Italy? The world's museum directors tremble at the frightening possibilities.
The second main issue involves the legality of the acts of Lord Elgin. In 1801, the Ottoman Empire had already lost territory to the march of Napoleon. The Ottoman Turks needed Great Britain's friendship. Elgin, the king's emissary to the sultan, was handled carefully. The Turks were not likely to cross him.
Elgin was fascinated with the possibility of adorning the mansion he was building in Scotland with pieces from the Parthenon, the surviving physical symbol of the golden classical era of Greece in the fifth century B.C. Though no convincing evidence exists, it appears that he got permission from the Turks only to make drawings and casts of the sculptures and to take away any loose artifacts on the ground. In fact, his engineers clumsily sawed off almost all of the surviving sculptures, most of which depict events in Greek mythology.
In any case, Elgin's obsession with taking the marbles took more money and more years than he envisioned. He went bankrupt and was forced to ask Parliament to bail him out by buying the treasures from him for the British Museum.
Most of those attending last week's conference realize that they can't pin their hopes on a legal case. Their stronger hope lies in the possibility of a bilateral agreement, some kind of quid pro quo.
Karl Meyer, a New York Times reporter and participant in the conference, suggested that the so-called Duveen gallery of the British Museum present rotating exhibits of Greek antiquities as a trade to fill the gap left by the marbles. A representative from UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (whose symbol is a picture of the Parthenon), suggested the use of the organization's good offices toward mediating a solution.
Historically and artistically, how important are the marbles? William St. Clair, a British historian who has written the definitive book on the Parthenon-Elgin affair, was a major figure at the conference. He offers this quotation from Richard Westmacott, a great 19th-century sculptor. "These are the finest thing in the world. We shall never see anything like them again." A Portuguese delegate quoted the esteemed modern architect Le Corbusier, who called the Parthenon marbles "the basis for all measurement in art."
There were a few dissenters. Anton van Hoof of the Netherlands insisted that the dispersion of art to different countries deepens cultural understanding, to mankind's benefit.
"Great art is not any one nation's property," he said.
James Cuno of the Harvard University Art Museum, while not explicitly opposing the marbles' return, questioned the wisdom of transferring them from one museum to another. (Greece is building a museum at the foot of the Acropolis to house the marbles, in sight of the Parthenon. The marbles would not be reinstalled on the temple.)
Much was made of St. Clair's sensational revelation of two years ago in a revised edition of his book. He discovered that in the 1930s, the British Museum had tried new methods of cleaning the marbles and seriously or irreparably damaged some of them - then covered up its mistake. This was due to the pressure of Lord Duveen, a shady British art dealer who promised to build a gallery for the marbles, but wanted them "whitened." "Before" and "after" slides clearly show the damage.
The story has outraged Greeks, who for years have been told that Lord Elgin and the British Museum had "saved" the treasures from incompetent Greek caretaking.
The root of the current campaign to recover the marbles dates to the mid-1980s, when Melina Mercouri, the actress turned Greek minister of culture, made the Greeks acutely conscious of their heritage. The Melina Mercouri Foundation, headed by her husband, film producer Jules Dassin, is one of the sponsors of the conference. Mercouri, who had hoped to see the marbles returned in her lifetime, has a goddess-like stature to many Greeks.
The United States provided about 10 delegates, including Anthi Poulos, a Washington lawyer who is founder and chairman of the Committee for the Parthenon, U.S.A. Also present was Kerry McKenny, legislative aide to Rep. Donald M. Payne, a New Jersey Democrat who has introduced a sense-of-the-Congress resolution calling for the return of the marbles to Greece.