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No plans to give Parthenon Marbles back to Greece

March 14, 2023

PM Rishi Sunak says UK will not change law to give Parthenon fragments back to Greece. The debate over their restitution continues.

Tourists look at a piece of the Parthenon frieze in the British Museum.
Image: Jay Shaw Baker/NurPhoto/picture alliance/dpa

For decades, Greek authorities have been arguing for the permanent return of the so-called Parthenon Marbles.  About half of the surviving fragments of a 160-meter-long (520-foot) frieze of the Parthenon Temple are in the collection of the British Museum in London. 

Athens wants them back permanently, but the UK's Conservative Party Prime Minister Rishi Sunakhas once again dashed such hopes. On March 13, he said the marbles are a "huge asset" to the UK and and ruled out changing a law that would allow the sculptures, which are also known as the "Elgin Marbles," to be given back to Greece.

"The UK has cared for the Elgin marbles for generations," Sunak said. "Our galleries and museums are funded by taxpayers because they are a huge asset to this country."

"We share their treasures with the world, and the world comes to the UK to see them. The collection of the British Museum is protected by law, and we have no plans to change it."

Presently, legal barriers make it difficult for the marbles to be returned to Athens. The British Museum Act of 1963 prevents the British Museum from permanently removing objects from its collections, with only a few exceptions.

The Acropolis in Athens with tourists walking around.
Greece wants the UK to give back the Parthenon Marbles once and for allImage: LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP via Getty Images

Reluctant to restitute

The 2,500-year-old sculptures, commonly referred to as the "Parthenon Marbles," have been at the center of the British Museum's collection since 1832.

Greek authorities have long been campaigning for their return, claiming the items were acquired under murky circumstances.

The British Museum, meanwhile, says they were acquired legally and should remain in the UK. Some scholars following the topic have gone so far been citing the decades-long discussion about the restitution debate.

Pope Francis and the leader of Greece's Orthodox Church, Ieronymos II, touch heads.
Pope Francis gave the fragments to the leader of Greece's Orthodox Church, Ieronymos IIImage: George Vitsaras/Pool/AP/picture alliance

Discussions ongoing, but little outlook to action

The pieces of the frieze in London, which depict scenes from Greek mythology, make up roughly half of the surviving fragments of the Parthenon.

They were taken under order by Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople, which controlled Athens until 1832. 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.

Many other marble sculpture fragments of the frieze are currently in the Athens Acropolis Museum, which opened its doors in 2009.

Hopes for a potential return have been high in recent months. In January, the British Museum confirmed that "constructive discussions" with Greek authorities related to a return — potentially a loan to Athens were "ongoing." Yet, such a deal is unlikely to appease the Greeks, who want the marbles returned for good.

A sculpture of a head of a man.
One of the three fragments of Parthenon Sculptures housed by the Vatican Museum that Pope Francis decided to return to AthensImage: Vatican Museum/REUTERS

Vatican fragments return to Greece

Meanwhile, last week, the Vatican began the process of returning several fragments. The three pieces in the Vatican museum's collection have been there since the 19th century. Now, they're finally making their way back to Athens after a transportation deal was finalized, said the Vatican. The marble fragments will arrive later in the month, with a ceremony planned to receive them on March 24, Associated Press reported. 

One is a fragment of the head of a horse that was pulling Athena's chariot in the frieze. Another depicts the head of a young boy, believed to be taking part in a procession to commemorate the founding of Athens. The third piece is the head of a bearded male, according to the Vatican News website.

In December 2022, Pope Francis gave them to Ieronymos II, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church, "as a concrete sign of his sincere desire to follow in the ecumenical path of truth,'' according to the Vatican. Similarly, in January, another fragment of the Parthenon sculptures depicting the foot of a goddess was returned to Athens by the Antonino Salinas Regional Archaeological Museum in Palermo, Sicily. 

A sculptural fragment depicting the head of a young boy.
A head of a young boy is among the fragments being returned to AthensImage: Vatican Museum/REUTERS

Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier and Louisa Schaefer

Sarah Hucal
Sarah Hucal Freelance Multimedia Journalist