When it comes to ancient treasures, are we owners, thieves or caretakers?

A section of the Parthenon Marbles, also known as the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. Photo: Ma

A section of the Parthenon Marbles, also known as the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. Photo: Matthew Fearn/PA Wire - Credit: PA

Perhaps it is time we had an international protocol on looted and 'rescued' heritage – the Elgin marbles, the Rosetta Stone and countless other ancient treasures that have been readily granted asylum in other countries; ours in particular, it appears.

Our imperial past is so discreditable, I read, that we should relinquish all claims to the artefacts we have, in the past, taken and send them home.

Then I also read that some of these items might not have survived had they not been removed and preserved.

It is also argued that if, for example, the Elgin marbles were repatriated, people would have pay to see them whereas, in the British Museum where they currently reside, you can see them for nothing.

But are we owners, thieves or caretakers?


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If the demands for repatriation grow, how many pieces of ancient art might disappear for years pending court judgements?

How far back in time should we go when deciding whether, morally, we need to restore these treasures to their places of origin.

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The Ashmolean Museum's collection began with the contents of The Ark, a 17th-century London museum started by the Tradescants, father and son plant collectors who sailed the world to bring back plants for the emerging British gardens.

On their travels they also collected rare and exotic objects, such as the mantle worn by the father of Pocahontas.

How do you assess what has been saved for posterity and what has been pirated for profit?

For the past 14 years, a 3,000-year-old Assyrian relief carving called the Genie of Nimrud has languished in a London police vault because its ownership is unclear.

It came from what is now Iraq but will it go back there?

Would it be safe there?

Is it any of my business?

'Probably not' answers all three questions.

Then we come to the Jesus College cockerel. It is reported the Cambridge college removed a bronze cockerel from its main hall after its students protested the sculpture, looted from west Africa, was a celebration of a racist and colonial past.

It is not yet decided whither it will be repatriated.

When it comes to antiquities, there are the looters and the looted.

It is not an even distribution. Conquerors have always plundered the wealth of the vanquished.

The British Museum is full of ancient items that are not British by manufacture.

But, by and large, even though they may not be ours to keep, we have cared for them.

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