x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

When troves are treasured: priceless relics far from home

Having plundered the world's cultural treasures for centuries, jolly old England could have a little problem of its own shortly.

Oh the irony. The popular historian David Starkey is leading a campaign to keep the largest-ever discovery of Anglo-Saxon treasure in England's Midlands, where it was found last year. If £3.3 million (Dh20m) is not raised in three months, the hoard could be sold on the open market - and broken up. The UK's minister of culture, Patricia Hodge, said she was "confident" the money could be found and "aware of how much the treasure had captured the imagination of the local people".

This, of course, is all happening in the same country that "owns" Greece's Parthenon Marbles (famously known as the Elgin Marbles), Egypt's Rosetta Stone and Iran's Cyrus Cylinder. The three precious treasures are stars of the historical warehouse that is the British Museum. A visit to the much-loved attraction immediately reveals that it's barely a museum of the British at all - it's a museum of the world. It's difficult not to feel slightly guilty about many of the exhibits, which were plundered when the empire was at its height.

The British Museum is not alone. Almost every major capital city exhibits treasures of dubious provenance, and increasingly, the countries they've been "liberated" from are trying to get them back. Egypt's vice minister of culture, the archaeologist Zahi Hawass, essentially travels to the world's museums with a shopping list of what he believes is his country's rightful property. Such campaigns have had some success. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York returned the Euphronios krater, an ancient Greek terracotta bowl and one of the best examples of the form in existence, to Italy in 2008. The Ramses mummy, stolen from a grave and sold to a Canadian museum in the 1860s, was given back to Egypt in 1999.

The old argument that the grand, well-funded museums of the West are the best, safest and most responsible custodians of these antiquities is steadily running out of steam, too. The Parthenon Marbles that weren't taken from Greece now reside in a quite beautiful new museum at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens, the missing sections pointedly reproduced in white plaster. It's incredibly difficult to suggest that they wouldn't be looked after in one of the most stunning exhibition spaces of the 21st century.

In this atmosphere of cultural repatriation, it's no surprise that Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke wish to display the Anglo-Saxon hoard near to where it was found. The 1,800 items of gold and silver are just as emblematic of the wealth of the ancient Midland kingdom called Mercia as the Parthenon Marbles are of Athens. It's likely that if they find the money, they'll get their way - and good for the Midlands. But will that be representative of a real shift, a thawing of Britain's attitude to where its treasures rightfully belong? Not really. The Midlands will have its hoard because it was found last year. But the Lindisfarne Gospels - the oldest translation of the texts into English, and that are representative of the north-east of England in exactly the same way - won't be driven to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne for keeps. Instead, the British Library is magnanimously lending them to the region for three months every seven years.

That's because the real enemy, for those who would like to see more artefacts and treasures repatriated, is a combination of time and law. The Lindisfarne Gospels were taken to London in the 17th century, and 200 years have passed since Elgin indulged in what, even at the time, Lord Byron called cultural vandalism. Nevertheless, he was acting with permission from the ruling Ottoman government. The bust of Nefertiti, the famous Egyptian Queen, which resides in the Neues Museum in Berlin, is one of the world's great art treasures, and another artefact that Hawass would like back. He might have had a chance if a team of German archaeologists had found it in 2008. But they uncovered it in 1912, did a deal with a senior Egyptian official (wholly dubious, but binding all the same), and the rest is German history.

And if that's not a big enough obstacle, there's the emotional argument from the museums: that sending one major artefact "home" would set a precedent that would eventually empty the great museums of their treasures. The tide, though, is changing. Even a poll in Britain overwhelmingly supported the Parthenon Marbles being repatriated. One day, possibly, one of these more famous examples will go home.