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Letter from Athens: It’s Artemis’ Feet Fragment, Not Fagan’s, Not Italy’s

January 16, 2022

If the British Empire or influence had lasted longer, the British Museum would have to build a few more wings to house all the stuff the country’s diplomats and theft engineers managed to get there, although the overflow could have been handled by diplomats in their private plunder collections.

The museum has for more than 200 years been holding the stolen Parthenon Marbles taken off the Acropolis by a Scottish diplomat, Lord Elgin, who said he had he permission of the Ottoman occupation forces – which didn’t own them – to take them.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who first asked for a loan of Greece’s treasures and property, and was willing to put up collateral in the form of other Greek marvels, wisely turned to wanting the Marbles back outright.

Greece won’t get them, of course, because they are too valuable to the British Museum and its Director, Hartwig Fischer, defended the theft by Elgin as a “creative act,” which tells you all you need to know about the mindset of Britain’s greatest fence of stolen goods – and you really don’t need a German art historian taking part in this.

About half the surviving 5th Century BC sculptures that decorated the Parthenon temple on the Acropolis are in the British Museum in London, which has long resisted Greek appeals for their return.

But there was near giddiness in some circles in Greece that the way was paved for the return of the marbles by a loan to Greece from Sicily’s A. Salinas Archaeological Museum of another stolen piece.

That is the right foot of a draped figure of Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt, originally located on the eastern side of a 160-meter (520-foot) sculpted frieze that ran around the temple.

The Italian museum said it had signed an agreement with the Acropolis Museum in Athens for a once-renewable, four-year loan of the small white marble piece – but Greece had to put up collateral, in the form of loaning a statue and vase.

The ultimate aim, the Italian Sicily’s A. Salinas Archaeological Museum said in a statement, is the “indefinite return” of the fragment to Athens, without explaining why that wasn’t done immediately since it had bought a stolen good.

“The return to Athens of this important artifact of the Parthenon goes in the direction of building a Europe of culture that has its roots in our history and in our identity,” said Sicily’s Councilor for Cultural Heritage and identity, Alberto Samonà.

Let’s hope he meant Greece’s history and identity and not the United Kingdom’s, nor Italy’s, because his museum acquired a stolen piece, so why not give it back now instead of loaning it? Italy doesn’t own it, Greece does.

There was rejoicing in Greece in some circles about the loan – not mentioning that the Italian museum had loaned it to Greece before – and that it was a damn breaker that would lead to the return of the Parthenon Marbles. Or is that the Elgin Marbles?

Mitsotakis said the loan from Italy sets a precedent and earlier told the British newspaper The Telegraph that Greece is “putting together the jigsaw” for the return of all the Marbles despite the insistence of the British Museum that it is the rightful owner, based on the British principle of plundering colonies and stealing other people’s culture, as they have none.

And how did the stolen feet of Artemis wind up in an Italian museum? The usual route, through a British diplomat, this one being a 19th century English Consul in Sicily, Robert Fagan, though it remains unknown how he acquired it.

After Fagan died, his widow sold the fragment to the University of Palermo’s Regio museum, which became the A. Salinas regional museum, the latest to hold another stolen Greek treasure.

Sicily’s regional authorities have initiated talks with the Culture Ministry to make the loan permanent, putting it on the agenda of a ministry committee that handles returns, the museum said, the Associated Press reported.

Fagan arrived in Rome in 1781 and started dealing in antiquities and with the financial backing of British patrons carried out several archeological digs and got permission from the Pope to export antiquities.

In 1809 Fagan was made British Consul general in Sicily and began other digs over the next few years before becoming ill and falling into debt, committing suicide in Rome by jumping from a window.

He took with him how he got his hands on Artemis’ feet, which, in keeping with the British tradition of naming stolen goods to put their imprimatur on them, has sometimes been called the Fagan Fragment.

It’s not, of course, and it’s a mystery where he got it unless the British Museum has a Stolen Antiquities section in its gift shop.

The Artemis loan got Greece only two feet closer to the return of the Parthenon Marbles which, at this rate, will take another 200 years even though hopes rose when The Times of London, which had sided with the British Museum, changed its stance.

“Times and circumstances change. The sculptures belong in Athens. They should now return,” the paper said, after Prime Minister Boris Johnson earlier rebuffed Mitsotakis’ call for him to intervene.

Artemis’ feet? It will take a more creative act to get the Parthenon Marbles, like Johnson taking his own feet out of his mouth.

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