2014 Archived News

Chessmen’s move suggests an endgame over Elgin Marbles

Chessmen’s move suggests an endgame over Elgin Marbles

The British Museum has agreed to return on loan some 12th century chess pieces to the Isle of Lewis after 180 years

Mike Wade

Published in the Times at 12:01AM, December 28 2013

Campaigners for the return of the Elgin Marbles believe the repatriation of half a dozen medieval chess pieces to the Isle of Lewis could mark the beginning of the endgame in their longest-running cultural battle.

From 2016, the chessmen will be permanently housed on their “home” island for the first time in 180 years, when they arrive at a purpose-built gallery from the British Museum. For advocates of the Marbles’ return to Greece, the move sets a clear precedent.

“So many of the original objections put up by the British Museum for refusing to return the Marbles to Athens have been swept aside,” said Tom Flynn, of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles. “There are no reasons remaining to prevent them entering a dialogue with the Greeks now about the terms of and conditions under which return might be considered.”

The chessmen will arrive on “long-term loan” at Lews Castle, high above Stornoway harbour, where work goes on to complete the £8.5 million museum which will be their home.

The island’s new centre is being built to a demanding specification. The pieces, each carved from walrus ivory, will be exhibited behind 11.5mm anti-bandit glass, and there are tremor alarms and lockdown systems to prevent vandalism or theft.

The Greek Government believes that the issue of the Marbles is clear-cut, said Evangelos Venizelos, the Deputy Prime Minister. The request to return the Marbles was not simply made in the name of his country, but “in the name of the cultural heritage of the world and with the voice of the mutilated monument itself, that cries out for its marbles to be returned”.

Made in the 12th century, the chessmen were discovered near Uig on the Isle of Lewis some time before 1831. They were then taken from the island — “looted” according to one school of thought — arriving in Edinburgh, where they were acquired by a dealer in antiquities. He sold ten pieces to a local collector, and these now form the basis of the small collection at the National Museum of Scotland. The remaining 82 were sold to the British Museum.

Linda Fabiani MSP, a former SNP Culture Minister, said: “There are strong feelings in the Western Isles and throughout Scotland that all the chessmen should be returned from London,” she said. “The same applies to the Elgin Marbles.”

The British Museum said: “The simple precondition required by the trustees before they will consider whether or not to lend an object is that the borrowing institution acknowledges the British Museum’s ownership of the object. In the case of the Lewis chessmen, the Scottish government acknowledges the museum’s trustees’ title. The Greek Government does not recognise that the trustees own the Parthenon sculptures on behalf of the world public and has not requested a loan of these objects.”