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Thanks to the Seventh Earl of Elgin, everyone is familiar with the question. Ever since the earl's agents, in the first decade of the 19th century, prised from the façades of the Parthenon his now eponymous collection of marble sculptures, the debate has rumbled on.

To whom do the great works of antiquity - or of any other past culture for that matter - actually belong? Does title reside in the modern-day peoples on whose terrain the objects were found? Or can there be a wider, indeed loftier, form of proprietorship, whereby artefacts of great beauty, rarity or interest can become the common property of humankind, held in a form of universal trusteeship by the great museums that have come to possess them?

Confronted with these tricky questions, museum directors have not always been particularly confident in providing answers. Their general befuddlement was perhaps understandable. During the 1980s and 1990s, the advent of a new and highly proprietorial cultural nationalism, asserting that states had an automatic right of ownership over the ancient art objects which had been produced on "their" soil, called into question the very legal title by which museums held their collections. Some of the archaeological profession, woozy on a mixture of post-colonial guilt and self-proclaimed moral rectitude, further compounded these doubts.

They spoke of an "ethical crisis" confronting archaeology, insinuating that almost all great collections of antiquities had been formed by some form of looting or cultural vandalism.

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