Can Greece and the U.K. Finally Broker a Deal to Return the Elgin Marbles to Athens?

New talks raise old questions about the ancient Parthenon sculptures

A woman looks at the Parthenon sculptures/Elgin marbles in the British Museum, London
The Parthenon sculptures are also known as the Elgin Marbles.  Photo by David Cliff/NurPhoto via Getty Images

When it comes to the repatriation of art and artifacts to their home countries, one ethical dilemma rules them all: the Greek Parthenon sculptures housed at London’s British Museum. What is the rightful home of these friezes and metopes that once decorated the Acropolis’ temple of Athena—Athens, where they originated, or London, their home for the last 200-plus years?

An answer to that question is coming ever closer as Greece and the United Kingdom’s ministers of culture are set to meet in coming weeks, according to a report from the United Nations’ world heritage organization Unesco. While a date for the meeting was not given, an agency document indicates the discussion is “about to be arranged in due course.”

Resolution has been a long time coming. The case was first submitted to the Unesco committee in 1984, the report says, while Greece made its first request to the U.K. a year earlier. In September 2021, the body recommended that Greece and the U.K. “intensify their efforts with a view to reaching a satisfactory settlement of this long-standing issue.” During that same session, the Unesco committee called on the U.K. “to reconsider its stand and proceed to a bona fide dialogue with Greece on the matter.”

The sculptures are commonly known as the Elgin marbles, so named for Thomas Bruce, Seventh Earl of Elgin, their rescuer or looter, depending on your perspective.

From 1801 to 1805, Elgin had “about half of the remaining sculptures” of the Parthenon sent to Britain, as well as “sculptural and architectural elements” from other parts of the Acropolis, per the British Museum’s website. The museum claims that Elgin acted “under the oversight of the relevant authorities” and that in 1816, before entering the artifacts into the British Museum’s collection, a Parliamentary Select Committee that investigated his tactics “found [them] to be entirely legal.”

“In total, the British Museum owns 15 metopes, 17 pedimental figures and a 247-foot section of the original frieze, all of which the institution maintains were acquired legally during a time in which Greece was under Ottoman rule,” writes Artnet’s Dorian Batycka.

Created between 447 B.C.E. and 432 B.C.E., the friezes held by the museum depict the Panathenaic festival, an Athenian festival in honor of Athena. Metopes, which would have stood atop the temple columns, depict a battle of Centaurs and Lapiths. Though some of the figures show their age, the artwork as a whole gives a sense of the magnificence of the ancient world.

The man who would bring these antiquities to Britain did so in his role as its ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Even then, his decision was controversial; “calls to return the sculptures to Athens began in Elgin’s own day,” Bruce Clark reports for Smithsonian magazine.

At first, Elgin’s project was only supposed to entail “drawing, documenting and molding antiquities.” But eventually, his personal assistant procured a permit from the Ottomans allowing their team not just to do the former but also to “take away some pieces of stone with old figures or inscriptions.”

It is difficult to ascribe just one motive to Elgin’s actions. On paper, he claimed that he was saving the treasures from near-certain demise at the hands of the Ottomans. Then again, he also hoped to decorate his house with ancient artifacts.

Hundreds of years later, Britain has been largely one-note on its response to Greece. In 2009, Greece unveiled its sparkling new Acropolis Museum, complete with plaster casts where the Elgin Marbles might one day reside.

But last year, Prime Minister Boris Johnson reiterated that the sculptures had been acquired legally, reports Hyperallergic’s Elaine Velie. In February, the U.K.’s arts minister, Stephen Parkinson, noted that the British Museum “operates independently of the government,” saying that decisions about their collections were up to them.

For its part, Greece’s own Minister of Culture, Lina Mendoni, called the British Museum’s decision “an anachronistic attitude of complete denial, recycling myths, sophistries and even falsehoods,” reports Greek City Times’ George Vardas.

When repatriation efforts fail, Greece has found different ways to recover lost artifacts from other countries in the past. In January, Sicily’s archaeological museum sent a fragment of the Parthenon to the Acropolis Museum on a long-term loan, reports Hyperallergic’s Valentina Di Liscia.

Whether the British Museum and the United Kingdom might consider such an agreement remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the two-century controversy about the fate of the ancient friezes will prevail—and millions of visitors a year will view the artwork in the country that preserved (or plundered) them.

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