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Guest Viewpoints

On the Athens and London Dialogue for the Return of the Parthenon Sculptures

January 28, 2023
By Michael Reppas, Esq

While it is encouraging, indeed exciting, to learn of the ongoing dialogue between Athens and London, one must avoid the temptation of entering into an agreement that might allow a short-term solution, but result in a long-term failure. The adage would be “winning the battle, but losing the war.” The foreign antiquities amassed by the British Empire from across the globe (not just from Greece) are not something the British are going to simply hand back to Greece or any other indigenous people who created their art. They have had ample opportunity over the last several decades to do so and declined all such requests. To be clear to everyone reading this article, there will be conditions to this new agreement… and any conditions should cause concern.

I ask you to think about one, possible condition that the British will likely put forth as non-negotiable; that being ‘ownership’. There will be many conditions, but for now let’s just consider this one, likely requirement. What if the British agree to start sending over pieces of the Parthenon, in cycles (sending over two or three and taking back two or three others at the same time), on the condition that Greece formally concedes that they are ’owned’ by the British Museum and that Greece agrees to waive any right that it may have to legally challenge the British right to exclusive possession and clear title as the only ‘owner’ of the sculptures? Would that be acceptable to you? Well, it’s not to me.

For the Brits it would be a huge victory. It would forever wash away any claim that Lord Elgin and the other looters were without the moral or legal right to pillage the cultural patrimony of the powerless Greeks – it would turn an historical ‘wrong’ into a ‘right’. It would also be the first in a domino chain whereby every other country whose antiquities were looted and presently fill the trophy cases of the British Museum would be compelled to accept their historical ‘wrong’ as ‘right’. I have opined on such possibilities since my first Law Review article published in 1997 on the subject. Nothing has changed. Control and ownership are the key points to this agreement and they always have been.

My concern today is that if Greece concedes ownership to the British Museum as part of any new deal, not only are they forever waiving the right for future generations to demand the return of all the Parthenon Sculptures, they are also abandoning the high ground they have heretofore maintained as the world’s leading advocate for restitution of looted antiquities to other exploited source nations. This is more than just being about the Parthenon Sculptures. The Brits want a deal to preserve their claim to sole and unchallenged ownership of the Parthenon Sculptures and every other looted antiquity they wrongfully obtained. They want a clear title.

While I, of all people, advocate with all my heart for the repatriation of the Parthenon Sculptures to Athens, I could never consent to a return which requires Greece to agree that the British Museum is the rightful owner of the antiquities. They are not. Elgin was never entitled to forcibly remove them from Greece and ship them to England. I therefore caution those at the negotiating table to not give away ownership of these priceless pieces of antiquity for a short-term, political gain. To do so would be insulting to our ancestors and to our progeny.

‘Ownership’ is non-negotiable.

Michael Reppas, Esq., LL.M. International Law is President of the American Committee for the Repatriation of the Parthenon Sculptures, Inc.

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