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Elgin marble row with a difference as Canadian hotel seeks return of busts

IT sometimes seems that anything linked to the Elgin dynasty and made of marble is bound to become shrouded in controversy.

The long-running row between London and Athens is rumbling on over the sculptures known as the Parthenon Marbles, which were taken from the Acropolis.

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Now a fresh dispute has emerged over a pair of marble busts of the 8th Earl of Elgin and his wife, created in Scotland in 1941 and donated to Canada.

The 11th Earl, whose family seat is Broomhall House, near Dunfermline, has been dragged into the row between a Canadian hotel and the country’s national gallery over where the busts should be displayed.

At stake are two busts, one of Sir James Bruce, the 8th Earl of Elgin, a Scot who became Canada’s first governor-general in 1847 and was a pivotal player in establishing a responsible government in the country. The other is of his wife Lady Mary Lambton, a daughter of the 1st Earl of Durham.

The sculptures, commissioned by directors of Standard Life, were shipped to the Lord Elgin Hotel in Ottawa as a gift to Canada by the 10th Earl of Elgin when he heard in 1939 that a hotel was to be built and named in honour of his grandfather.

In July 1941, the busts went on display in the lobby of the hotel after an unveiling by the then prime minister, Mackenzie King.

However, in 2003 the hotel allowed the sculptures to be sent to Rideau Hall, the official residence in Ottawa of both the Canadian monarch and the governor general of Canada, for a historical celebration of Sir James Bruce organised by Library and Archives Canada.

The busts were never returned and for eight years managers of the hotel have had requests for their return rebuffed.

A Rideau Hall spokeswoman said the Elgin busts were only ever “on loan” to the hotel. She said the sculptures had been donated to the Government of Canada and were only to remain on display at the hotel for an “indefinite amount of time”.

The present Lord Elgin, Andrew Bruce, 86, says he understands there was an agreement that the busts would be returned to the hotel after the exhibition.

He said: “The argument seems to lie with the director of the National Gallery [of Canada] at the time.

“There has been a family relationship ever since the hotel was built and that seems to me to be vital.”

A letter at the time of the loan, from Pierre Théberge, former director of the National Gallery of Canada, to Don Blakslee, the then hotel manager talked of the arrangement.

It said: “Once the exhibition is closed the loans officer will co-ordinate the return of the sculptures to the Lord Elgin Hotel.”

However, reports from 1941 about the donation of the busts quoted Mackenzie King as saying: “Acting upon Lord Elgin’s suggestion, the Government has had great pleasure in loaning to the management of the hotel for an indefinite time these works of art.”

As with the London-Athens dispute, it seems this latest Elgin marble row still has some way to go.

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