Without them, many of the artefacts now demanded back from museums simply wouldn’t have survived.
If ever you find yourself in Berlin, there are three places you absolutely must visit. The first two are museums: the Neues Museum, to see the well-worth-the-detour head of Nefertiti; and the Pergamon Museum, so you can offer up a prayer of gratitude for the arrogance of all those 19th-century imperialist looters who understood that the treasures of classical antiquity are far too precious to be wasted on the barbarous cultures which, by geographical accident, have inherited them since.
Yes, perhaps I’m overstating it. ‘Barbarous’ certainly isn’t a term you’d apply, say, to Khaled Assad, the heroic and scholarly Syrian archaeologist who preferred to die rather than betray to his Isis killers the secrets of Palmyra; nor to the refugee from Aleppo described in the Guardian last week being moved almost to tears by the 17th–century wood-panelled interior at the Pergamon which reminded him so much of his childhood.
But what you can’t deny is that if half those ill-gotten treasures now on display at places like the Louvre, the Pergamon and the British Museum were still in situ, they wouldn’t exist at all.
Take the Pergamon Altar, transplanted in the late 19th century from Turkey to Berlin. You gaze up at it now and wonder: did the locals not mind when the Germans came along and helped themselves to such vast chunks of their architectural heritage?
And the answer is that they didn’t give a toss. When Carl Humann, a German engineer, first spotted it in the 1860s, the altar of the temple — built in the 2nd century BC for the Greek King Eumenes II — was being used by the local Turks as a quarry, with the stones pillaged for new buildings and the marble burned for lime.
The same was true, of course, for the Parthenon marbles removed from the Acropolis under the direction of Lord Elgin. As well as ‘continually defacing the heads’ on the sculptures, the Turks — who’d been using the place as a citadel — had sometimes pounded them down for use as mortar.
It’s all very well arguing that the Ottoman bey should never have granted the firman permitting their removal. But the facts are that he did, that the arrangement was perfectly legal and that the outcome for the marbles was about as good as could be hoped for because there they are, centuries on, safe in the British Museum rather than a pile of rubble and dust in Athens.
Read the rest at the Spectator.