Rumours grew during December 2022 that the trustees of the British Museum were close to striking a deal with the Greek government to return the Parthenon sculptures, a unique collection of Ancient Greek sculptures, to Athens on long-term loan. The Parthenon sculptures (formerly known as the Elgin marbles) have been in the UK since they were sold to the British government by Lord Elgin in 1816, who had himself purchased them from Ottoman officials who occupied Greece at that time. Greece has long maintained that the sculptures were removed illegally and remain the property of the Greek state. In addition, the Parthenon Project, an organisation which campaigns for the reunification of the Parthenon sculptures in Athens, recently commissioned polling by YouGov which indicated that a modest majority of Britons (53%) also believes that the Parthenon sculptures should be returned to Greece.
The board of trustees of the British Museum, which now has custody of the sculptures, is ostensibly prohibited by the provisions of the British Museum Act 1963 from permanently removing any objects from the museum’s collection. In light of this, the trustees had proposed a long-term reciprocal loan agreement whereby the Parthenon sculptures would be displayed at the Acropolis Museum in Athens, while a rotating selection of other Ancient Greek treasures would be borrowed for display in the British Museum.
Last week, the Greek government rejected this proposal on the basis that the British Museum has no title to the sculptures and therefore has no authority to lend them. This would appear to be a politically-motivated decision rather than a practical one: the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, runs for re-election in July 2023 and has made the permanent return of the Parthenon sculptures to Greece a cornerstone of his campaign.
Although there has been no tangible progress yet, the question of the Parthenon sculptures, and of the restitution of cultural objects more generally, is far from resolved. In December 2022 the Vatican set a significant precedent by permanently returning its collection of Parthenon sculptures to Greece, framed as a ‘donation’ to the Greek Orthodox Church. A proposed increase in the value of ‘ex gratia’ transfers UK charitable bodies may make (i.e. transfers neither legally required nor in the charity’s interests) has also caused particular speculation in connection with the return of artefacts by charity trustees to their place of origin on moral grounds (albeit that the proposed new value limit of £20,000 for ex gratia transfers would not be relevant to the Parthenon sculptures specifically). Finally, the impact of the results of the Greek election this summer, and of changing sentiment among the British public, remains to be seen.
We have extensive experience advising on all manner of cultural property disputes and restitution claims. Contact Suzanne Marriott or Louise Paterson for more details.
Mitsotakis also said on Wednesday that Greece wants the antiquities returned so that "not only we, Greeks, but everyone, including our visitors, see and enjoy this universal monument in its entirety, in its natural space, which is none other than the Acropolis Museum".