The Elgin Marbles, the Bust of Nefertiti, the Euphronios Krater, and the Rosetta Stone: Who Owns What?

Posted on May 11, 2010


As I typed in my rather unimaginative title to this post (I’m exhausted from traveling today, and its the best I could do), I thought about how I’d like to see that dogs playing poker painting redone to have all of these items in it.  You know, playing poker.

The New York Times recently printed an article titled, “Who Draws the Borders of Culture?,” written by chief art critic and columnist Michael Kimmelman.  The article discusses the cases of the Elgin Marbles, along with the bust of Nefertiti and the Euphronios krater, to explore ownership of cultural property. The article focuses on morals more than law, and is one of the more intelligent and open-minded discussions on the subject I’ve seen.

Kimmelman takes a Cuno-esque position, but writes in a disaffected, impartial tone, and he ultimately discounts the concept of ownership altogether. He explains, “Siding with the imperialists drives good people bonkers, I know. It’s akin to Yankees worship, with the Greeks playing the underdog role of the old Red Sox.”

The article present the following succinct explanation of perceived political motivations behind Egypt’s request for the return of the bust of Nefertiti:

When Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s chief archaeologist, who made the recent fuss about the Rosetta Stone, also demanded that Germany hand over Nerfertiti, the 3,500-year-old bust of Akhenaten’s wife, he chose the moment when the Neues Museum in Berlin opened with the bust as its main attraction.

The interior of the new Acropolis Museum.

This was just after Farouk Hosny, Egypt’s candidate to run Unesco, the United Nations cultural agency, was defeated in a vote that Egyptian leaders considered a diplomatic slap. Mr. Hawass used Egypt’s only real weapon on the international stage, its cultural patrimony, to lash out by proxy at the perceived enemies of Mr. Hosny’s candidacy and pander to the wounded egos of Egypt’s ruling elite.

It was a public relations gambit. Practically speaking, Egypt had to know there was no immediate shot at getting Nerfertiti back. The sculpture served in a passing form of political theater common these days, with Egypt playing plucky David to the West’s Goliath.

To read the entire article (only 2,200 words), click here.