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Human figures are depicted in fragments of the Parthenon Marbles on display in the British Museum.
The Parthenon Marbles, part of the British Museum's collection, have been disputed for centuriesImage: Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto/IMAGO
CultureUnited Kingdom

British Museum confirms talks over Parthenon Marbles

January 6, 2023

Are the Parthenon Marbles coming back to Greece? The British Museum has finally acknowledged talks, but Athens wants the sculptures recognized as "stolen."

https://p.dw.com/p/4Lmb5

Rumors have been flying in recent months about the return of the so-called Parthenon Marbles to Greece, but a new statement by the British Museum has put hope in the hearts of those who would like to see the marble sculptures back in Athens.

The 2,500-year-old sculptures were once part of the Parthenon temple and have been at the center of the British Museum's collection since 1832.

For years, Greek authorities have been campaigning for their return, claiming the items were stolen.

The British Museum, meanwhile, claims they were acquired legally and should remain in the UK.

Could the stalemate slowly be coming to something of an end?

For the first time ever, the British Museum confirmed that it is involved in discussions with Greek authorities.

"We've said publicly we're actively seeking a new Parthenon partnership with our friends in Greece, and as we enter a new year, constructive discussions are ongoing," the museum said in a statement on Wednesday.

It may seem like a small move, but it's significant in light of the level of gridlock seen on the issue.

The British daily Daily Telegraph even reported that the marbles could be returned to Greece on a loan basis "sooner rather than later," although the Greek government has yet to put out a statement.

Secret talks have reportedly been taking place between the chair of the British Museum, George Osborne, and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis for a year.

However, a day after reports came out that the British Museum and Greece were on the verge of closing a deal, German press agency dpa reported that the Greek Ministry of Culture had rejected the proposition of having the sculptures returned as a permanent loan.

"We repeat, once again, our country's firm position," the Greek Minister of Culture said in a press release Thursday evening, stating that Greece does not recognize the British Museum's claimed ownership of the Parthenon sculptures, which Athens sees as "the product of theft." The ministry has not not yet replied to DW's request for a statement.

People walk past fragments of sculptured human bodies on display at The British Museum.
The marbles have been at the center of a restitution debate for yearsImage: Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto/IMAGO

Controversially removed by Lord Elgin

The marble sculptures consist of parts of a frieze, metopes and figures, and depict scenes from Greek mythology. They represent roughly half of the surviving sculptural decorations of the Parthenon — and many of their counterparts are in Athens' Acropolis Museum.

They are sometimes referred to as the Elgin Marbles, after Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople. His staff began removing them from the Acropolis in 1801 and later sold them to the British government, along with hundreds of other antique items taken from Athens.

The sculptures were surrounded by conflict from the time they were first taken from the citadel.

Their sale to the British Museum just barely passed via an Act of Parliament in 1816 and was already vehemently opposed by some, including poet and author Lord Byron, who called it a "robbery."

People look at sculptures from the collection on pedestals in the British Museum.
The UK maintains the sculptures were obtained legally, while the Greek government disagreesImage: Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto/IMAGO

The stakes are high on both sides, particularly as Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who is up for reelection in 2023, seems to have made the return of the marbles part of his campaign strategy.

In recent months, the prime minister said there was "progress" and a "sense of momentum" related to the return of the marbles to Greece, even though the British Museum had until now refrained from admitting that discussions were even taking place.

The pope returns fragments to Athens

Whether or not the marble sculptures were legally acquired by the UK remains at the core of the restitution debate, says Alexander Herman, assistant director of the Institute of Art and Law and author of the 2021 book "Restitution: The Return of Cultural Artefacts."

"For over 200 years, this has been on the cultural agenda in the UK and obviously in Greece," Herman told DW in 2021.

Greece was occupied by Turkey at the time Lord Elgin removed the sculptures, but shortly after Greece gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1832, requests came in for various artifacts to be returned, Herman points out.

A human head carved out of marble.
Pope Francis ordered the return of three fragments of the Parthenon Marbles in DecemberImage: Vatican Museum/REUTERS

Strong signals of support for Athens' claims were given by the Vatican last month.

In late December, Pope Francis ordered the return of three pieces of the Parthenon to Athens as a "donation" to the Orthodox Christian archbishop of Athens — although he clarified it was not a political act.

Shortly thereafter, the Acropolis Museum announced the fragments would be held in its collection. The items were previously centerpieces of the Vatican Museum.

Legal barriers an excuse for reluctance to engage in restitution?

The British Museum has been criticized for not actively participating in the restitution debate that has gained momentum in European and US museums in recent years. The return of the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria has been a major restitution topic in Germany and France in recent months, for example.

Yet even if the trustees of the British Museum were to decide to return the pieces, a law would need to first be overturned — and it would likely only be done on loan.

The British Museum Act of 1963 prevents the British Museum from permanently removing objects from its collections, with only a few exceptions.

A spokesperson for the UK's new Conservative Party Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said there were no plans to change the law: "Our position on this hasn't changed," Euronews reported in December. 

"Decisions relating to the care and management of the collections are a matter for the museum and its trustees. The Parthenon sculptures are legally owned by the trustees and operationally independent of the government," Sunak's spokesperson added.

Even if a loan deal is reached soon, the fight over the marbles is unlikely to end, as Greek authorities have stated they will keep fighting until they receive full legal custody of the valuable sculptures.

Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier

Udpated: First published on January 6, 2023, this article was updated with a statement from the Greek ministry of culture.