For decades, the Parthenon marbles (ancient Greek sculptures from the Parthenon) have been poisoning relations between Great Britain and Greece. These masterpieces of classical Greek art, housed within the walls of the prestigious British Museum, have been claimed since the nineteenth century by Greece, which believes that Britain unduly appropriated them during the Ottoman era.
We must go back to 1802 to understand the origin of their ‘acquisition’ by the British. At that time, British diplomat Lord Elgin—hence the name Elgin marbles, which is sometimes given to the sculptures—who was the British ambassador in Constantinople, took advantage of the chaos that reigned in the city of Athens, then under the Ottoman yoke, to have the precious sculptures dismantled—with the aim of measuring them, casting them, and having them analyzed. An agreement from the Ottoman chancellery was necessary to carry out the operation. One year earlier, the Ottoman troops, helped by the British, had succeeded in taking back the city of Cairo from the French: the Ottomans were thus obliged to the British, and acceded without difficulties to the request of Lord Elgin, in exchange for some rich gifts. It must be said that the Parthenon, transformed at the end of the 17th century by the Turkish occupant into a powder magazine, and reduced to a state of ruins by an attack of the Venetians, was then only a shadow of itself.
In a few months, the sculptures decorating the temple of Athena were cut with a chisel, detached, sometimes even sawed in two, to be taken to England. The main part of the frieze, the pediments and the metopes, were thus placed in boxes and sent by boat. Brought back to London, the marbles were then bought by the British Museum from Lord Elgin. They can still be seen there.
The latest historical studies would suggest quite clearly that the British government was complicit in Elgin’s scheme. The marble boxes were exempted from customs duties and described on arrival in the UK as “trifling antiques and marbles.” The then foreign secretary, Lord Castlereagh, was personally involved in the clearance of these goods … and then worked to have the marbles bought back by the state: a well-crafted deal.
As soon as Greece gained independence in 1830, the new Greek government tried to recover the Parthenon masterpieces through a buy-back or exchange, but without success. The British maintain that the acquisition of the marbles was legal, while the Greeks speak of a plundering made possible by the negligence of the Ottomans. There have been multiple requests for recovery, until the last one, made in 2017 on the occasion of Brexit. The Greek government sought the assistance of the European Commission, once again in vain.
But the tide is turning. Thanks to an agreement now under negotiation, revealed by The Telegraph, the Parthenon marbles could be given to Greece for a long-term loan. The chairman of the British Museum, former finance minister George Osborne, is working with the Athenian authorities on a deal that would circumvent a 1963 law preventing the dispersal of the British Museum’s collections. The existence of “constructive talks” has since been confirmed by The Guardian.
The agreement negotiated between the museum and Greece should allow a rapid return of the frieze to Greece. But this gesture of apparent goodwill would not put an end to the quarrel because Athens intends to continue to demand full restitution. Moreover, the agreement concerns only a part of the marbles, and not the whole, the total frieze being no less than 160 meters long.