By Anthe Mitrakos
CHICAGO, IL – The Parthenon Marbles must return to Greece, ruled a jury, judges and a crowd majority at the National Hellenic Museum’s (NHM) “Trial of the Parthenon Marbles.”
The event, held on March 16at the Art Institute Chicago, was part of an acclaimed series of annual mock trials that have included the trials of Antigone, Orestes, and Socrates.Honorable guests include some of the city’s most revered legal professionals, who come together to debate on the trial at hand before a crowd of civilians who also participate in the voting process.
This year’s trial attracted over 800 attendees who came to hear proceedings and cast their final vote in favor of returning the marbles to their birthplace. “The marbles together tell a story. Apart, they tell a tragedy and that is what is happening right now,” said jury member Georgia Loukas. “The Parthenon is synonymous with Greece.”
The jury ruled 8 to 4 for the marbles’ return. “Greece was never paid for the marbles, and we all know in Chicago when you see people carrying things out the back of a building and you don’t see evidence recorded on the books…” jury member Chris Lawson said, amusing the crowd.
Other members of the jury opened the discussion of rightful ownership, and examined the moral implications of having a creation as globally admired as the Parthenon, taken apart for display in multiple areas.
“Justice, as well as equity require that the half [of the marbles] that is in England be returned to mother Greece, to be with its other half in the Acropolis Museum,” said Judge Anthony Kyriacopoulos.
Even some of those who voted against sending the marbles back to Greece alluded to the immorality of the pieces being there in the first place.
“My ancestors came over from Britain on the Mayflower,” said Anne Morgan, “Letting [the marbles] stay at the British Museum will allow the British to make the moral decision to give them back on their own,” she said.
Judge Richard Posner cast the sole dissenting vote in the 4 to 1 judge decision, asserting that the sculptures created by the Ancient Greeks belong to the world rather than Greece, and should remain at the British Museum, where they have resided for 200 years.
“If we really were to adopt the principle that the original home of cultural artifacts has an indefeasible claim for the return of them, think about what our museums would look like,” Posner argued. “This museum is full of foreign artifacts…as are many other museums, facilities, buildings and so on. Are we to return them whenever asked for them by a country from which the artifacts come? Half our art would go back to France,” he said.
But Posner’s position was not backed up by his peers, who voted to have the marbles returned to Greece for a number of decisive factors, both moral and legal.
Judge P. Kocoras pointed out a common British law stating that “a thief who steals the property of another does not acquire valid title to the property. A purchaser of stolen property from a thief can never gain title greater than that which the thief can transfer. The same legal principles apply when a nation is looted of its property by a conquering force,” he said.
Known as the Elgin Marbles, the Parthenon Marbles are a collection of surviving sculptures dating back to the Classical Greek period. They were created by the sculptor Phidias and his group of assistants, and originally adorned the Parthenon and other Athenian Acropolis buildings before being removed from 1801 to 1805.
It is said that Thomas Bruce, British ambassador to the then ruling Ottoman Empire, also known as Lord Elgin, received a permit to remove the sculptures and transfer them by sea to Great Britain. The remaining marbles not taken by Lord Elgin were subsequently removed in the 1970s and are now on display at the Acropolis Museum in Athens.
Priceless antiquities, the Parthenon Marbles date back to 447 BC and include, among other pieces, a number of panels that once adorned the 247-foot Parthenon Frieze. The marbles have been the center of international debate, especially among those concerned with cultural history.
Since the early 1980s, the Greek government has called for the return of the marbles to Greece, disputing the British Museum Trustees’ legal rights to the sculptures. The British Museum, however, has routinely denied this accusation and has advocated that the sculptures remain in place in its world class, encyclopedic museum in London where they have been on permanent public display since 1817.
“The question of where the surviving sculptures from the Parthenon should be displayed has long been a subject of public discussion,” the British Museum states on its website. “The Trustees remain convinced that the current division allows different and complementary stories to be told about the surviving sculptures, highlighting their significance for world culture and affirming the universal legacy of Ancient Greece.”
But the vast majority of judges, jury members and the crowd at the NHM’s “Trial of the Parthenon Marbles” believe otherwise.
“By having the marbles exposed and exhibited the way they are violates the intention of the creators,” said Michael Kosmopoulos, who voted to have the marbles returned. “I don’t think the Ottoman Turks, an occupying force, had the right to give [the marbles] away.”
Judges Richard A. Posner and William J. Bauer of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne M. Burke, US District Judge Charles P. Kocoras, and Cook County Circuit Judge Anna H. Demacopoulos presided over the proceedings, providing insightful rulings at the conclusion of the events.
Greece was represented in its effort to regain control of the Marbles by Daniel K. Webb, Sam Adam Jr., and Robert A. Clifford, while the British Museum was represented by Patrick J. Fitzgerald, Patrick M. Collins, and Tinos Diamantatos.
This year, two experts took the stage to provide the audience with important historical facts. Testifying on behalf of Greece was Dr. Fiona Rose-Greenland while Molly Morse Limmer served as the British expert witness. Both experts were cross-examined for a lively exploration of the nature of historical permissions and the treatment of artifacts that eventually reside in museums.
Both sides offered compelling cases that asked the judges, jury and audience to consider the complexities of law, history and heritage. The evening provided a robust debate on topics surrounding cultural heritage and its preservation, as cultural universalism, nationalism, and symbolic representation were discussed. Also questioned was whether law, morality, or justice should be the applicable aspect for debating the case.
“What I would say to the British is, ‘keep calm, carry on, and send them home,’” said Heraclea Karras, who was part of the jury.
The NHM Trial Series have since the very beginning attracted Chicago’s professional community for a night of passionate debate examining moral and legal angles to a number of trials, real, fictional and hypothetical, raising awareness aboutGreek cultural heritage and historical memory.
“This Trial was our most successful ever. The lawyers’ arguments were brilliant, giving many lay people a glimpse into what real life courtroom theatrics look like,” NHM Trustee and Trial Planning Committee Chair, Konstantinos Armiros said.