Without UK Law Change, Greece Fears Parthenon Marbles Lost Forever

ATHENS – Despite British Museum teased offers of loaning Greece back the stolen Parthenon Marbles, it’s likely to never happen without the United Kingdom changing laws to allow their repatriation.

The British newspaper The Telegraph said Greek officials it didn’t identify believe the marbles will stay in London without legislation that could open the door for their return.

Museum Chairman George Osborne recently said there was a “deal to be done,” but added it would be in the form of a loan and that Greece would have to return its own treasures back to London.

The newspaper said it was told by a senior Greek official not named that, “There needs to be legislative change, one that will allow the museum to dispose of objects in its collection. That would be a key positive step. That is really the way forward, that is what we are waiting for.”

That was in reference to the British Museum Act of 1963 protecting collections, many stolen from other countries, including those under British rule at the time, the UK having little of value to show off of its own.

That law bars British Museum trustees from disposing of objects in its collection except in very limited circumstances, which means they can’t decide to return the stolen marbles on their own.

That’s at odds with outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s assertion that the government couldn’t do anything about it and that it was up to the museum what to do with its collections.

But museum officials have said they can’t act without a change in the law, making any gesture of return meaningless and further frustrating Greece, more than 200 years after Scottish diplomat Lord Elgin ripped them off the Parthenon.

The British even refer to them as the Elgin Marbles, saying he had permission from officials of the Ottoman Occupation to take them even though they belonged to Greece and no one else.


The British government and museum saying it’s the other’s responsibility has further made Greek officials reportedly even more disgruntled at what seems to be a game to keep the stolen marbles permanently in London, where they are a big draw for the museum.

There was talk earlier this year of the United Nations cultural body UNESCO mediating talks between the UK and Greece but the British rapidly rejected even discussions about it.

In order to get a loan of its own marbles, Greece’s New Democracy government under Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis would have to sign an agreement they belong to the British, not Greece and were legally acquired, not stolen.

Greek Culture Minister Lina Mendoni has repeatedly and vehemently stated they were stolen but Mitsotakis, unlike an earlier New Democracy government, hasn’t been willing to try legal action for their return.

A senior Greek source told the newspaper that recognizing British ownership of the Greek marbles “cannot be accepted” which means they will stay in the British Museum unless the stalemate can be resolved.

Andrew Dismore, a former Labour Member of Parliament who filed a measure in 2009 to facilitate the marbles’ return said the only hope is through the law in the UK which isn’t seen happening for now.

He told the Telegraph: “A legal battle would not work. Greece did not exist as a nation when the Marbles were taken, and Greece was not a nation when the Marbles were made. So ownership is tricky. They need a solution which sidesteps the legal issue and the question of ownership.”

He said that the 1963 law “is the main stumbling block, and the way to change that is through Parliament. It could be through a Private Members’ Bill but, realistically, it would need government backing to get through. In some ways we’re in the same position as 2009. The same position we’ve always been in.”

With pressure ratcheting up by supporters of the marbles return, including a majority of the British in surveys, it was thought that would squeeze the British government toward changing the law but it’s in flux with Johnson on the way out.


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