ATHENS – It seems a never-ending story – whether the stolen Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum will ever be returned to Greece – and part of the debate rests on whether Greece still legally owns the treasures.
In a report, the United States’ TV network ABC News said that some museums around the world with stolen artifacts say they no longer belong to the countries from which they were plundered.
Greece’s New Democracy government reportedly is engaged in secret talks to try to work out a deal for the return of the marbles taken off the Parthenon from 1801-05 by a Scottish diplomat, Lord Elgin, who sold them to the British Museum.
The museum contends it’s the rightful owner because he had permission to take them from the ruling Ottoman Empire – which didn’t own them – and has offered only to loan them with the stipulation Greece give up ownership.
The report asks: “Can a governing power such as the Ottoman Empire rightfully give away the artifacts of the cultural state it rules – like the Grecian marble sculptures?” The answer seems unclear, but Greece says it’s not.
The museum said Elgin did nothing wrong in stealing them. “His actions were thoroughly investigated by a Parliamentary Select Committee in 1816 and found to be entirely legal, prior to the sculptures entering the collection of the British Museum by Act of Parliament,” the British Museum said.
But the Office of the Secretary General for Greeks Abroad and Public Diplomacy in Athens told the TV station that’s not the case and that, “The violent detachment of the Parthenon Sculptures from their physical context and the architectural setting that they were part of violated the laws, the common sense of justice and the established morals at the time.”
Where it gets murky, the report said despite what would seem to be obvious theft of a country’s treasures, including others around the world, the museum holding goods taken from former colonies, is over patrimony laws.
Those are designed to protect cultural heritage by legally preserving antiquities, artifacts and to prevent international conflicts like the fight over the Parthenon Marbles that is still raging.
But the laws go back only to 1891, with one of the first patrimony laws in Egypt, according to anti-racketeering group Antiquities Coalition. Many other countries around the world followed with protections of their own.
But anything taken before these protections were in place is where the argument of rightful ownership gets complicated, the report said, adding that in some cases, it’s up to the institution or museum to return an artifact that has been stolen, looted, or taken under precarious circumstances.
“A lot of people would think it’s morally right, ethically right to return these objects,” said Leila A. Amineddoleh, an attorney specializing in art, cultural heritage, and intellectual property law, from New York’s Fordham University.
“The Parthenon is a symbol of Greece in ancient Athens,”Amineddoleh said. “I don’t really understand how the British Museum can continue to argue that they’re keeping the work safe if, in fact, those objects were removed and destroyed the site (of the Parthenon,)” she also said.