The British Museum and the Xanthos Marbles

At a time when the Turkish rulers of Greece were conducting a profitable trade in ancient statues, Charles Fellows, an enlightened English tourist, rescued a precious hoard from Asia Minor. By Sarah Searight.

The rights and wrongs of national treasures surviving in foreign hands is often debated in these days of nationalism. When acquired, the treasure’s survival may have been at stake; national pride was then either non-existent or focused on the present and the future rather than the past. Nowadays the past also has a value which, thanks to the growth of modern tourism and the hardening of frontiers, is often as much commercial as it is patriotic.

The British Museum, being a repository of some of the world’s greatest treasures, is occasionally caught up in these acrimonious debates. Should the treasures be returned or not? In their countries of origin national treasures are threatened not only by tourists but also by the art market, which in these inflationary times has given them an enormous value; and it is possible that they are safer in the British Museum, however sore an insult this may be to national pride.

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