In the year of the Athens Olympics the issue of the Elgin Marbles has exploded all over again,” Andrew Graham-Dixon said in The Elgin Marbles on BBC2. He promised “to get at the facts behind the arguments. Just what is it that makes the marbles matter so much?” As outrider in the cavalcade of TV programmes about the Olympics, BBC2 picked an opportune moment to discuss an issue about which Greek national pride runs high. At 90 minutes this was a serious and substantial programme, in which Mr Graham-Dixon examined a complex question with clarity and style: was Lord Elgin’s escapade plunder or salvage, and what are the implications for us today? In my judgement it wins a gold. Even if you know the story of the 7th Earl of Elgin and how the Parthenon marbles come to be in the British Museum, this was an exciting re-telling, not least because, as announced in the opening minutes, “All dialogue in this film is transcribed from historical records.” For once the dramatisations had purpose and carried conviction.
With Lord Byron’s accusation that Elgin had robbed the Greeks of their glorious past, controversy surrounded the taking of the marbles almost from the first. Consciences in the English government were pricked. Had Elgin acted legally? The scenes re-enacting the evidence taken by a Parliamentary Select Committee set up in 1816 to enquire into the matter, 14 years after the event, made an absorbing culmination to the narrative. At the heart of the enquiry were the precise terms of the firman, or the written permission granted Elgin by the Turkish authorities regarding his work on the Acropolis. Geoffrey Beevers as a sharp and quizzical chairman, and Crispin Redman, a haughtily defensive Elgin, lifted the dry emphasis on semantics.
Chairman: There seems to be a considerable difference between to excavate and remove, and to remove and excavate. The question was not whether your lordship was permitted to remove what you should find on excavation, but whether your lordship was permitted to remove from the walls.
Elgin: I was at liberty to remove from the walls. The permission was to remove generally.
After two weeks’ deliberation the Committee reported. Good news for Elgin. He had done nothing wrong, and, since the Turks had known what was going on, he had every right to remove the marbles. “Given the somewhat conflicting nature of the evidence, that now seems a little surprising. But then again it’s in the great tradition of the British Parliamentary report,” Mr Graham-Dixon said wryly. The viewer might find it less surprising, perhaps, since it would have assuaged the Government’s guilt about the purchase of the marbles from Elgin, and at a bargain price, which only covered half the cost of their transport from Greece.
Contemporary evidence drew on a wealth of expertise: Andrew Bruce, the present Earl of Elgin, Dr Dyfri Williams, Keeper of Greek and Roman Antiquities in the British Museum, William St. Clair, Elgin’s biographer, Professor Simon Goldhill and Dr Mary Beard, both classicists in Cambridge University, Michael Daley, director of Art Watch UK, and Richard Allan, MP, chair of Parthenon 2004. Putting the Greeks’ emotional case were Elena Korka, archaeologist and Greek Minister of Culture, Jules Dassin, President of the Melina Mercouri Foundation, and Professor Anthony Snodgrass of the Marbles Reunited Campaign.
In the final analysis, we must judge Elgin not on his character or motivation, but on the effect of what he achieved, Dr Beard said. “The effect is, for better or worse, he saved for humanity a lot of sculpture that we value very highly, and in some ways he was instrumental in changing the course of how Britain engaged with the classical world.” The question is, where do the marbles belong?
Neil McGregor, director of the British Museum, shifted the argument onto another plane, pressing the idea of world museums, of a shared inheritance, and of culture as something uniting humanity, rather than “as what defines and differentiates and separates nations and peoples”.
So what should happen? Mr Graham-Dixon wisely did not join the tug of war. “If the arguments weren’t strong on both sides then this debate wouldn’t have gone on for the best part of 200 years,” he said. But his concluding thought was that the Greeks’ argument would gain strength when the new Acropolis Museum opened, and “you’ll be able to see the gaps in the jigsaw puzzle of the marbles”. Is he suggesting that the Greeks have a special case? The emotional pressure will be on.
The obsessive motivation of collectors comes under scrutiny again in Why do people buy art? in a third series of Channel 4’s successful Art Show.
This spring Ben Lewis visited the Armory Show, New York’s International Fair of New Art, to find out why American collectors are choosing to buy the new art which is now outselling old and Modern masters. This was not intended as a methodical piece of research, but a geeky look at an extraordinary phenomenon, collecting gone mad. Collecting for love, for money, for personal salvation, and, yes, even to save humanity. With a whole new infrastructure to support the craze. Incidentally, we see comparatively little art in this programme.
At the Armory Show money speaks. In 2004 189 galleries from all over the world each paid $30,000 to hire a stand, and virtually sold out in two days, raising a record-breaking $40 million in sales in four days. Katelijne De Backer, a director of the fair, describes it as “a shopping mall. I feel I shouldn’t say that as an art fair organiser.” She is sceptical about the set-up. Never mind. Like Susan Goodman, a new collector of young, contemporary artists, it means you can go home with an Uwe Hennecke, a German abstract painter, for only $3,000. Or like Adam Lindemann, who made his pile running successful Spanish radio stations, you can go in search of only the best of today’s masters “Matthew Barney, Murakami, Tim and Sue, and Damien, too,” rhymes Mr Lewis.
Mr Lindemann started collecting 10 years ago and has watched the fever rise. The entire mentality had changed. “It’s insane.” For one thing, unknowns can emerge on the scene at anything between $30,000 and $70,000. For another, the gallerists now “place the work” by choosing the collector. No good thinking you can just walk into a gallery with your cheque book and buy an important Damien Hirst. There’s often a waiting list. Lewis nervously seeks advice from Jay Jopling, Hirst’s dealer, who declines an invitation to be interviewed: “No, I don’t want to do that,” he says abruptly.
But Emmanuel Perrotin, a top Parisian gallerist, gives us the lowdown on how the multimillionaire can strike a tacit deal. If you buy a lot from him over many years, and promote his artists by taking his unfashionable as well as his fashionable stable, then “you will be first on the list. It’s not democratic, I’m sorry,” he says.
Art advisers like Thea Westreich are booming, along with the numbers of collectors and artists, just to help people through the bewildering plethora of new art. Will a lot of people end up with burnt fingers, Mr Lewis asks her. “Well I don’t think we’ll have to wait 10 years, do you?” she replies.
And then there are all the web sites that have sprung up since the mid-1990s with the latest auction prices. They’ve bred a new type of collector, “the day trader”. Invest $50,000 with dealer David Hoyland, and make a return. “It’s a lot like the stock market, but you’re more likely to make money, if you’re intelligent.”
“As well as making you money, art can also save you money,” says Mr Lewis, taking us to art lawyer Ralph Lerner. He’s hot at maximising on tax breaks for American art collectors who donate works to public collections. His firm will also arrange “for donations of partial interest”. You donate your $1 million work to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for six months while you’re on your hols, and get a tax deduction for $50,000. “It’s a great way to do tax planning, and have your art and enjoy it.”
But some collectors are beyond all that. Don and Mera Rubell are “the world’s biggest collectors of contemporary art. For Mera Rubell, the experience is “urgent … like falling in love. And as a collector, if you can’t buy it … it’s really painful.” For Don Rubell, committed collectors “achieve a purity they haven’t achieved anywhere else in their lives.”
Mera Rubell: Yes, I do believe that. … if a choice in your life that you didn’t realise that you had becomes visible to you, I think that’s saving a life. … Art presents another opportunity. It’s a fork in the road every time.”
Mr Lewis concludes that “collecting contemporary art has become a new wonder drug for the super rich”. He remembers a prep school joke: “Why do pop stars go out with models. Answer: Because they can”.
The Elgin Marbles, BBC 2, 26 June. Presenter Andrew Graham-Dixon. Executive producer Kim Thomas. Produced and directed by Robin Dashwood.
The Art Show: Why do people buy art?, World of Wonder for Channel 4, 4 September. Presenter Ben Lewis. Executive producer Jacques Peretti. Director Irshed Ashraf.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Olympic spirit fuels enduring debate'