[FOUNTAIN]When Greece Lost Its Marbles

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[FOUNTAIN]When Greece Lost Its Marbles

An English proverb says that while petty thieves are punished, big thieves are rewarded. An impressed Charles II, king of Britain in the 17th century, bestowed the substantial sum of 500 pounds on Thomas Blood after he succeeded in stealing the royal crown from the Tower of London.

Big thieves leave behind big names. Ancient marble sculptures taken from the Parthenon in Athens, Greece, are now on display at the British Museum in London under the name of the "Elgin Marbles." It is said that the robbery of these marble sculptures was not the original intention of Thomas Bruce (1766-1841), better known as Lord Elgin. In his time, "all things Greek" were the rage among the British nobility. He promised his bride a Greek-style mansion as a wedding gift. Elgin was later appointed British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Since the Turks occupied and controlled Greece at that time, it was a stroke of luck.

Elgin's original plan was to copy various sculptures decorating the walls and the ceiling of the Parthenon, the building embodying the quintessence of ancient Greek art in the 5th century B.C. But his plan soon expanded to include actually removing sculptures from the Parthenon and shipping them to England. Using his position as British ambassador and bribes, Elgin obtained the permission of the sultan to transport the sculptures to London, which he began doing in 1801. Over the next 10 years, he shipped 253 marble works to England. Elgin's workmen did not hesitate to saw the works into pieces to accommodate their transportation. They committed not only daylight robbery, but vandalism.

When Elgin's dream of a Greek-style mansion deflated after his wife left him for another man, he sold all his loot to the British government for the scrap value of 35,000 pounds. For 200 years, "Elgin's" marble sculptures have remained one of the British Museum's most treasured collections.

The dispute between Britain and Greece over the return of the sculptures entered a new phase after the Greek government requested that London temporarily return them for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. Athens offered to loan a collection of newly found archaeological treasures in return for the sculptures. But the British government rejected the Greek request. London has consistently opposed the return of the marbles, insisting that there was nothing illegal about its purchase of them. And Korea, despite negotiations with France for eight years, has not yet managed to get back the looted Choson Dynasty Oekyujanggak library books from France. Such are big thieves' manners.

The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Bae Myung-bok

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