Could Greece Force EU to Demand Repatriation of Parthenon Marbles after Brexit?



As Britain leaves the European Union, it is taking with it one of its members’ most invaluable cultural treasures. It is likely now that the issue of the repatriation of the Parthenon sculptures will take on a new dimension.

As a member of the EU, Britain remained adamant about the British Museum’s rightful ownership of the sculptures in response to Greece’s repeated requests that they be returned.

The British government even argued at one point that the British Museum itself does not belong to the state; therefore there is nothing that can be done about the issue on a governmental level.

However, it seems that a tiny window may be opening for a new claim that the priceless marbles belong to Greece for cultural and ethical reasons, regardless of any and all arguments of legal ownership by the British Museum.

After Britain’s withdrawal from the Union, the country will have to sign new agreements with the EU on a range of important issues. One of these concerns the realm of culture and cultural artifacts.

And without a doubt, Greece’s ancient Parthenon sculptures belong to this category, and take pride of place in it.

What Greece can push for now is the issue of the repatriation of these particular cultural artifacts to their original and rightful owners, regardless of any possible claims of legality from centuries ago expressed by the British Museum.

Greece has made official appeals to repatriate the priceless historical treasures since the mid-1980s, with then-Minister of Culture Melina Mercouri rallying for this cause for years.

In 2015, the United Nations began an initiative called “The Restitution or Return of Cultural Property in the Countries of Origin,” which includes an explicit reference to the return of the Parthenon Marbles.

A total of 74 countries, including many European Union member states, a significant number of Latin American countries and several Arab and African states are involved in the initiative.

Besides UNESCO, Greece has tried to find justice in international courts on the issue, but to no avail — at least until now. The British Museum went as far as to claim that Greece has no legal rights to the sculptures whatsoever and that they are better protected on its premises than they would be in Greece.

Ironically, while the museum and the British government have been firmly against the repatriation of the invaluable artifacts, the majority of UK citizens are overwhelmingly in support of the reunification of the Greek marbles.

A 2017 poll showed fully 69 percent of Britons were in favor of returning the marbles, while only a mere 13 percent were against the repatriation.

Perhaps most ironically, Britain’s new Prime Minister Boris Johnson is also against the returning of the cultural treasures to Greece. This is especially surprising because Johnson is an outspoken philhellene, who has always admired ancient Greek civilization and its invaluable contributions to western culture.

In fact, Johnson has even been quoted as saying that the marbles “…were rescued quite rightly by Elgin.”

Boris Johnson and His Love for Greece

UK's new PM is a big fan of Ancient Greece. Will he govern with ethos though? And most importantly, will he give back the Parthenon Marbles that were stolen from the country he so admires? Full story: https://bit.ly/2Z2TCLI

Posted by Greek Reporter on Tuesday, July 23, 2019

What Greece simply must do now is bring the issue of the repatriation of the Parthenon sculptures to the Brexit negotiation table. All negotiations on any cultural issues whatsoever must absolutely include these priceless marbles.

As a member of the European Union, Greece can at last take a hard stance and use its veto power in all future deals made between Great Britain and the EU. Greece must force the EU to demand the repatriation of the Parthenon marbles as part of the Brexit deal.

Greece has the UNESCO decision, the majority of EU member states, a total of 74 countries — and even a majority of Britons — on its side to correct a wrong that has been perpetuated for over 200 years.

Lord Elgin and the plundered sculptures

Thomas Bruce, the Seventh Earl of Elgin, served as the British ambassador to Constantinople. He was a great admirer of ancient Greece and asked the Ottoman rulers of Greece at the time for the authority to replicate some of the sculptures of the Parthenon.

Elgin was somehow even given permission to chip away and remove some of the sculptures from the mighty edifice as well.

He removed portions of the frieze, along with the metopes and pedimental sculptures of the Parthenon as well as sculptured slabs from the Athenian temple of Nike Apteros, in addition to various antiquities from Attica and other areas of Greece which caught his eye. 

Part of the Elgin collection was prepared for shipping to England in 1803, but his ship, the Mentor, wrecked near Cerigo with its priceless cargo of marbles. It was not until after the labors of three years, and the expenditure of large sums of money, that the marbles were successfully recovered by divers.

After acquiring this first booty of plundered antiquities, Elgin continued to make additions to his collection as late as 1812, when eighty new cases full of antiquities arrived on English shores for his delight and delectation.

The British Museum continues to claim that Lord Elgin did not “steal” the artifacts. Instead, the Museum insists that Elgin took them with the complete knowledge and permission of the Ottoman authorities. Taking into account the fact that the Ottomans had invaded Greece, and had no part in the production of these Greek antiquities, somehow has been left out of the equation.

It is estimated that Elgin looted some 247 feet of frieze sculptures from the Parthenon. Furthermore, it is believed that Elgin took around half of what was still standing of the Parthenon structure itself at that time.

After Elgin shipped all his loot to England, he sold the sculptures in 1816 for £35,000. Eventually, they were acquired by the British Museum in London.

However, even back in the early 1800s, the legitimacy of the ownership of the marbles was controversial. Only after a Parliamentary Select Committee debated the legality of Elgin’s ownership, when Elgin argued that the sculptures would be better cared for in Britain than in Greece, did the museum finally take possession of the Parthenon antiquities.