Parthexit? A Trojan Horse for Britain

Whatever you may think of Brexit, the impact of that action is already being felt in the art world – and as of yesterday, it’s taken a rather interesting turn with respect to the most famous ancient sculptures in the UK.

The business impact of Britain’s departure from the European Union has, until now, been the main area of interest for those following the post-Brexit art world. Some of the more predictable issues may already be affecting the art market, or not, depending on how you choose to read things. For example, last week ArtNet reported that the three major London auction houses had posted pre-sale estimates that were down 22% from the pre-sale estimates made in the previous year, which would seem to indicate that the top end of the market was anticipating a dampening effect in the wake of Brexit. Yet in the end, Sotheby’s at least brought in almost exactly the same amount as it did in 2019 – around $120 million.

While this is interesting, and could be interpreted from either a pro- or anti-Brexit perspective, comparing year-over-year sales in the art market can sometimes be a bit deceptive. Unlike in, say, the manufacturing and sale of consumer products, the high end of the art market is particularly affected by the issue of what’s actually available for sale, because it’s dominated largely by one-offs. In other words, the pieces up for sale are completely unique, not multiples of the exact same thing. How does this factor affect the comparison to prior year’s sales? Well, if you had a particularly sought-after selection of such highly individual objects up for auction last year, but this year your selection doesn’t have as many standouts, it shouldn’t be surprising if your numbers are affected, Brexit or no.

There’s also the broader question of whether buyers are being spooked by the coronavirus situation in China and elsewhere. Usually, committed art collectors are not going to miss the opportunity to buy something that they really love. However in the Contemporary Art world, a very significant number of purchasers view the art for sale as another type of trading commodity, no different than pork bellies or Apple shares. Should it surprise anyone if these types of buyers choose to put their money elsewhere for awhile, until whatever’s happening with the virus resolves itself?

It’s one thing for the UK to have left the EU, but it’s another for the UK and the EU continuing to do business with one another. Given the substantial amount of investment and commerce that takes place back and forth across the Channel, the two sides need to work out some kind of a trade deal. What has suddenly become very interesting in these negotiations however, as reported yesterday afternoon by Bloomberg, is that the Greeks may have wheeled in (ahem) something of a Trojan horse to the proceedings:

The latest draft of the EU’s negotiating mandate, seen by Bloomberg News, says that the U.K. will need to “address issues relating to the return or restitution of unlawfully removed cultural objects to their countries of origin.”

Officials involved on both sides said the clause was widely interpreted as a direct reference to the ancient statues in the British Museum that were taken from the Parthenon in Athens at the start of the 19th century. A Greek official denied that the clause related to the statues, saying they remain a bilateral issue between the two countries.

For sheer melodrama, it’s hard to beat the ongoing soap opera surrounding what are referred to by some as the Elgin Marbles, and by others as the Parthenon Marbles. What they are, if you’re unaware, are 5th century BC sculptures from the Parthenon and other ancient buildings on the Acropolis in Athens, that were acquired by Thomas Bruce, the Earl of Elgin, in the early 19th century. They’ve resided in the British Museum since 1816, when they were purchased from Lord Elgin by the British government. Title to the works has been in dispute for centuries, since Lord Elgin claimed that he was given written permission to buy the marbles by the Ottoman Turks, who ruled Greece at the time, but others claim that this was untrue due to, inter alia, a lack of corresponding documentation on the Ottoman side of things.

The timing of Greece’s move, if indeed this was their idea, couldn’t be better for the facilitation of what I’ll shamefacedly call “Parthexit”. Not only is the UK no longer in the EU, and in need of swiftly coming up with some sort of normalization of trade relations with its European neighbors, but the socio-political climate at present is one in which the return of cultural objects has been picking up considerable steam in the art world. An increasing number of smaller British museums have already been prevailed upon to return items that were acquired during the heyday of the British Empire, and that juggernaut doesn’t appear to be slowing down even if, for now, the British Museum is resisting its pull.

What’s more, in the wake of Brexit some kind of arrangement for the cross-border sharing of objects between art institutions also needs to be worked out. Without such an arrangement, the Brits could well end up in a situation where shows like this fall’s celebration of the Year of Raphael at the National Gallery in London might not be able to go ahead. The exhibition is set to include promised loans of works from the Louvre, Prado, and Uffizi, among other museums, marking the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death. In the current post-Brexit and cultural repatriation environment, it’s entirely possible that these institutions might choose not to send their very rare and valuable works to London for this, or indeed for any other show, pending resolution of the Elgin Marbles issue.

This will no doubt be a very interesting, and very controversial story to follow in the weeks and months ahead, so stay tuned.

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