Behind British Museum’s Trickery to Keep Parthenon Marbles Ownership

LONDON – A reported deal that would see the stolen Parthenon Marbles housed in the British Museum for 200 years being sent back to Greece revolves around making it a loan to get around the dictates of British law.

Writing for The Conversation, John Picton, Senior Lecturer in Charity Law at the University of Liverpool, indicated that it’s a bit of legal chicanery to get past British law which prohibits the museum from dispossessing its holdings.

Museum Chairman George Osborne, who a year earlier reportedly was in secret talks with Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, now is said to be furthering discussions with Greek officials about how to return the marbles to Greece, but with the museum still owning them.

Greece’s Culture Ministry, which has both confirmed and denied reports about talks, said it would never accept such conditions because it said the museum has stolen goods in the Greek treasures.

“Ownership would be kept by the British Museum, even while the marbles will be rehoused in Athens. As a matter of law, it will be possible to claim that the sculptures have not, strictly speaking, been deaccessioned,” Picton said.

“Once the marbles are rehoused in the specially built Acropolis Museum, it is unlikely that they will ever return to London. Any request from future museum trustees would be met with a cold shoulder,” he added.

The 17 friezes that tore apart the line of the marbles on the Parthenon atop the Acropolis were taken by a Scottish diplomat, Lord Elgin, who said he had the permission of the ruling Ottoman Empire, which didn’t own them.

He planned to put them in a hall in his estate, Picton noted, but after running into financial difficulty sold them to the museum for far less than the cost of taking and transporting them.

The museum has maintained ever since that they were legally obtained and has for decades resisted any attempt by Greece to get them back, although a former ruling Radical Left SYRIZA government gave up a legal challenge and said they belonged to the world and not Greece.

But the leftists have seized on the debate, saying that Mitsotakis is making a play and ploy ahead of coming elections later this year and that has seen the marbles become a campaign issue.

“This potential personal ambition is not legally straightforward. The British Museum is formally a charity and Osborne must put the best interests of the organization before all else. He must account for any negative consequences flowing from repatriation,” said Picton.

He added that, “The issue is not clear cut. Although the museum will lose its prize exhibit, and may have less visitors, the return of the marbles will generate intense press publicity – and perhaps some goodwill – around the world.”

He also said the museum’s claims for legal possession are “certainly doubtful,” and that Elgin went beyond any authorization given him by Greece’s ruling Turkish occupiers and that he sought consent after the fact.

“Even accepting all this, Osborne still cannot lawfully “deaccession” the Parthenon marbles. Under the British Museum Act 1963, such action is permitted only if objects are ‘unfit to be retained,’” he added.

“Osborne’s plan, as it is reported, has found a way around this legal problem. His scheme is for the marbles to be loaned. It is a carefully constructed legal plan, but it could also be a missed opportunity. Over the coming decades, pressure on the British Museum to repatriate other objects, such as the Benin bronzes, and the Rosetta Stone will probably grow,” he said.

“It would be better to move forward in a spirit of transparency. It is still widely thought that deaccession is politically unpopular. But in changing times, that view might now be out of date,” he also said.


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