Who owns art? It’s a question that plagues philosophers and public officials, and it gets even more thorny when more than one party claims ownership of the art in question. Now, reports Hyperallergic’s Allison Meier, a 200-year-old debate about plunder and possession is coming to a head with a movement to return the Parthenon marbles—a series of astonishing statues from the ancient Greek Parthenon—to Greece.
Members of the U.K. Parliament recently introduced a bill that would transfer ownership of the infamous statues to Greece, Meier reports. The bill would also update British museum laws to make it impossible for objects from the Parthenon to be sold by the British Museum, where they currently reside.
It’s the latest iteration of a centuries-long debate about where the marble statues, which were famously plundered by Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin, from the Greek temple of Athena in the early 19th century. At the time, notes the BBC, Lord Elgin took entire boatloads of sculptures back to England, selling them to the British government which purchased them in 1816, exactly 200 years ago this summer.
Nearly everything about his acquisition of the precious sculptures, which constitute more than half of the known friezes and decorations that remained on the Parthenon at the time, is contested. Were his actions legal? Some say yes—though the documents Lord Elgin presented as proof that he was allowed to take the statues are controversial. Do the marbles belong in Britain? Some agree—they have resided at the British Museum for centuries and had an undoubted impact on art at the time.
But times have changed, and as more and more works are returned to their native countries the Parthenon marbles have been at the center of ongoing controversies. They are now seen as a symbol of Greek national identity and, as The Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins writes, “have accrued layers of meaning over time.” Greece has long pushed for the marbles’ return, making both moral and legal claims, but all attempts to get the British Museum to return the statues have failed. The Museum’s trustees claim that the statues are not best viewed as a full set and that the status quo “allows different and complementary stories to be told about the surviving sculptures.”
The move to return the sculptures seems to be an acknowledgment of the enormity of Britain’s recent “Brexit” vote to leave the European Union. Returning the statues could be a diplomatic coup for the U.K., writes The Independent’s Ian Johnston, and seems to be an attempt to help smooth Britain’s transition away from the EU. RT reports that a recent survey found that only 13 percent of Britons don’t think the statues should be returned.
While the British Museum has repeatedly rejected calls to return the sculptures, public sentiment—and the U.K.’s sensitive political position—are bringing the spotlight back to the scuptures, in hopes of giving them a Brexit of their own.