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Parthenon Marbles

Are the Parthenon Marbles actually leaving London?

Rumours are that a deal might be close...but is it?

Written by
Eddy Frankel

Could the British Museum finally be on the verge of sending back the Parthenon Marbles? For decades, the museum’s controversial position has been that the Parthenon Marbles (brought to Britain by Lord Elgin in hugely dodgy circumstances in the nineteenth century) are legally theirs, and that they had no intention of even contemplating sending them back. And anyway, to do so would require an act of parliament, and nobody’s got time for that.

So things weren’t looking too rosy for the repatriation situation. But in November 2022, rumours bubbled up that secret talks had been held between George Osborne – the Chairman of the BM’s board of trustees – and Greek officials. Those rumours were confirmed as true, and then in early January 2023, The Telegraph reported that a deal had actually been drawn up that would see at least some of the Parthenon Marbles returned to Greece on long-term loan. An exciting development, for sure, but how likely is it? Is it all talk, or is the BM really about to lose its marbles?  

It’s not as clear or optimistic as the headlines would imply. The BM says the marbles were acquired legally, and therefore belong to them. Greek authorities dispute that, claiming that Lord Elgin’s expatriation of the sculptures was nothing more than theft. Either way, the British Museum’s collection is protected by the British Museum Act 1963 which legally prohibits the splitting up of national collections. 

And it’s worth bearing in mind that this all comes in the wake of George Osborne himself saying only in November that dismantling the British Museum’s collection ‘must not become the careless act of a single generation’. This was followed by a Rishi Sunak spokesman saying there were no plans to change the law regarding repatriation, and the government rejecting Tory peer Lord Vaizey’s call for a law change to make it easier for UK museums to deal with restitution requests.

But despite all this naysaying and blowharding, the British Museum has confirmed that there have been talks, and their communication on the subject has been more open than ever before. Last month, the museum said in a statement it had ‘publicly called for a new Parthenon Partnership with Greece’ and ‘we are seeking new positive, long-term partnerships with countries and communities around the world, and that of course includes Greece.’ But it also said that ‘we operate within the law and we’re not going to dismantle our great collection as it tells a unique story of our common humanity’. So that’s nice and clear. 

Danny YeLondon UK 1st May 2015: the collection of British Museum.

Whatever the reality of the situation, this is a notably different position from the BM. When talks were last held in 2002, they lasted just one hour; these ones have now been ongoing for 13 months. That’s progress, of a sort.

‘This drip drip of stories about a deal is all part of a new strategy by the BM,’ says Gareth Harris, a leading art journalist who has covered the Parthenon Marbles extensively for The Art Newspaper. ‘How the debate moves forward remains to be seen as Greece has always wanted to regain “ownership” of the Marbles. But a full transfer of legal ownership is not possible (1963 act of Parliament prevents deaccessioning). Osborne seems determined though that there is a “deal to be done”. I suppose it all depends on what Greece can offer in return…’

So if a deal does happen, it almost definitely won’t amount to full repatriation. Any solution would have to skirt around the issue of ownership, so most likely a ‘loan’ of the objects back to Greece, with neither side mentioning who might actually ‘own’ the works. The aim would be for a ‘mutually beneficial’ outcome that would likely see Greek objects loaned to the British Museum in exchange for receipt of the Parthenon Marble. One suggestion is that the British Museum would receive a 2,000-year-old bronze statue of a jockey in exchange. If all of that sounds fiddly, convoluted, complicated and unsatisfactory, that’s because it is. But it’s probably also the only way these things will ever actually get sent back

So has a deal actually been done? Are the Parthenon Marbles finally going back to Greece? Well, The Guardian claims that a senior Greek official told them on Wednesday: ‘This is not true. there is no such deal.’

And even if a loan deal has been done, it might not be the victory it looks like. Dan Hicks, author of the brilliant book ‘The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution’ says that ‘whatever happens in the case of the Parthenon Marbles, loaning back stolen goods to their rightful owners will certainly not represent the wider solution in other cases of restitution claims that some at the British Museum may hope it might be’.

And then only a few days after the Telegraph reported that a deal had actually been done, the UK culture secretary Michelle Donelan gave an interview to the BBC saying that permanent return of the marbles was not George Osborne’s intention. ‘I think his view on this has been misinterpreted and certainly portrayed wrongly. He’s not about to send them back, basically. That’s not his intention. He has no desire to do that. There’s also been this concept of a 100-year loan mooted as well, which is certainly not what he’s planning either. He would agree with me that we shouldn’t be sending them back, and actually they do belong here in the UK, where we’ve cared for them for a great deal of time, where we’ve allowed access to them.’ 

But most importantly, Donelan said that sending the sculptures back to Greece would ‘open a can of worms’. And that’s the really crux of it: if we send these artefacts back, it’s an admission that we weren’t entitled to have them – and, by extension, a vast amount of the other objects in British collections – in the first place. 

After years – decades, even – of outright refusal, it’s hard to imagine the Parthenon Marbles just being handed back to Greece. It just doesn’t sit right with how successive governments and boards of BM trustees have behaved. But just to be safe, go to the British Museum as soon as possible, right now if you can, and start saying your goodbyes. Just in case they actually do the right thing.

Want to see more stuff that probably shouldn’t be in the UK? Here are London’s best free museums.

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