Like Parthenon Marbles, US Museums Pressured to Return Treasures

December 14, 2022

NEW YORK – Greece’s hopes of getting the British Museum to return the Parthenon Marbles stolen 200 years earlier by Scottish diplomat Lord Elgin are being revived , squeezing American museums to send back some wrongfully-acquired treasures.

In a report, The New York Times pointed to a number of examples of some of the United States’ most prestigious museums having to give up long-held artifacts and displays as the mood has changed about how they were obtained.

That includes New York’s renowned Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose curator Thomas Hoving admitted in earlier times he was a kind of rogue going after prizes for the institution.

That, he said, included spiriting a Romanesque relief from a Florentine church out of Italy with the help of a dealer who, Hoving said, often stashed objects under a mattress in his station wagon.

“My collecting style was pure piracy,” he boasted, “and I got a reputation as a shark.” The Indiana Jones hat doesn’t fit today even with the fifth and last film in the series coming out.

The Parthenon Marbles seem destined to be in limbo forever with on-again, off-again reports about deals and secret deals to try to get them returned to their home in Athens, but in the US, museums are already sending goods back.

The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles returned three precious terra cotta figures to Italy. The Denver Art Museum shipped four antiquities back to Cambodia. The Smithsonian Institution returned 29 Benin bronzes to Nigeria. And the Manhattan District Attorney’s office seized 27 looted artifacts from the Met, which are headed back to Italy and Egypt, the paper noted.

“I do have sympathy,” Elizabeth Marlowe, Director of the Museum Studies program at Colgate University told the paper: “for museum directors and curators who were trained under different ethical norms and now find themselves in a situation where they very publicly have to rethink the ethical norms they are operating under. That said, ‘It’s time to step up, gentlemen.’ It’s a different landscape.”

For decades, and centuries in some cases, museums around the world stocked their display areas with stolen treasures, goods plundered from colonies or of dubious origin and looked the other way because of their value.

They’re doing with resistance and claiming – as has the British Museum – that the pieces they’ve gotten are so important to the world that they belong to the world, but should be kept in their institutions.

“We have moved the goal posts,” said Kate Fitz Gibbon, Executive Director of the think tank Committee for Cultural Policy about the new thinking that nonetheless now has curators and directors scratching their heads in uncertainty.


The British Museum still insists that the Parthenon Marbles – long referred to as the Elgin Marbles after the thief who stole them – were legally obtained because he had the permission of the ruling Ottoman Empire, which didn’t own them.

With recent reports that Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis had engaged in confidential talks with British Museum Chairman George Osborne – who offered only to loan Greece back its own marbles – other countries have been pushing to get back what was theirs too.

Egyptian archaeologists renewed calls for the return of the Rosetta Stone by the British Museum, which is trying to get away from its reputation as being a repository for goods from former colonies.

But in the US there’s a worry that the rush for repatriation should see some display halls emptying and removing lucrative attractions that lure constant streams of visitors and entice patrons.

The American museums want visitors to view them where they are, not go to museums in the countries which still own them even if they no longer have them, setting off a curious cultural debate.

“Arguments against repatriation are sometimes supported by paternalistic and patronizing arguments, asserting that western collectors and archaeologists ‘discovered’ these objects and have superior knowledge of them,” Leila A. Amineddoleh, an art and cultural heritage lawyer told the paper.

U.S. Homeland Security Investigations reports returning more than 20,000 items since 2007, largely seized from dealers and collectors, but also found in many of America’s most renowned institutions, the report noted.

“There has been a broad agreement for decades that objects that were stolen in violation of law should be returned, but what has changed is the amount of time and focus spent on this kind of crime and the political will to pursue it,” said Donna Yates, Associate Professor of Criminal Law and Criminology at Maastricht University in The Netherlands.

The Met paid $4 million for a  for a gold-plated coffin dating back to the 1st century B.C., believing the provenance had been vetted and there were questions about its legality – until finding out it illegally excavated from Egypt. Even so, it took two years before it was returned, the museum saying it was defrauded.

“There is a sense that the U.S. should not be the repository of the world’s stolen property,” said Stefan D. Cassella, a former federal prosecutor and the Manhattan District Attorney’s office has a restitution unit chasing fraud..

Since 2011, the office says it has recovered nearly 4,500 antiquities from collectors and dealers and, in several cases, from museums, going after them with a law that they can’t possess stolen goods. Greece hasn’t done the same.


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