The Case for the Return

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A generous offer by the Greek Government made in 2000

An offer that would be difficult to refuse.

The Greek Government has now proposed to the British Government to put aside the question of ownership. Instead the Greeks are inviting their colleagues at the British Museum to join them with the aim of reuniting the surviving sculptures in one place: in the new Acropolis Museum that will be expressly built in order to house all the Parthenon sculptures. This offer was clearly proposed by two Greek Ministers of Culture and expressly stated by Foreign Minister George Papandreou who gave evidence on 5th June 2000 to the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sports Committee.

Furthermore, Mr. Evanghelos Venizelos, the Greek Minister pledged that when the Parthenon sculptures are returned, the Greek Government will make sure that the Duveen Galleries would always host Greek antiquities on loan for exhibitions. Greece would be willing to send rare and even newly discovered antiquities, which have never been seen outside Greece. 

They should be relocated in Athens.

The Parthenon symbol of Greek cultural heritage.

The Parthenon is the most important symbol of Greek cultural heritage and according to the declaration of universal human and cultural rights the Greek State has a duty to preserve its cultural heritage in its totality, both for its citizens and for the international community. Therefore the request for the reunification of the sculptural elements of the Parthenon is ipso facto a rightful if not a legitimate request.

The display of the sculptures at the Duveen Galleries of the British Museum is unsatisfactory.

The Parthenon sculptures are not properly displayed at the British Museum. Not only they appear as if they form a whole, which they are not - as there is no indication where the missing slabs should have been. They are also exhibited on the inside of a wall. The purpose and aim of the freeze was to portray a procession that ran all along the outside  walls of the Cella building. The New Acropolis Museum corrects all this. The museum is ready to re-house the Marbles and visitors view these unique objects at their greatest advantage and close to their original position.

Caring for the Marbles

The British Museum have always claimed that the sculptures were very well cared for. Yet in the 1930s the sculptures were "cleaned" under the wrong belief that they were originally "brilliant white". The so-called cleaning was never the intention of the curators who knew very well that the sculptures made out of Pentelicon marble would have acquired a mellow honey colour when exposed to the air. Moreover the sculptures showed clear traces of colour that the scraping destroyed. The cleaning was done at the instruction of Lord Duveen who financed the building of the galleries for exhibiting the Marbles. The cleaning carried out with wire brushes, copper tools and carborundum caused serious and irretrievable damage that was admitted by the authorities of the Museum. However, the British Museum officials kept the full report on the incident carefully under wraps until a Cambridge historian revealed it in his book "Lord Elgin and the Marbles, Oxford University Press, 1998."

They should have never been removed.

The Parthenon Marbles an integral part of a famous monument.

The Parthenon Marbles - or more precisely, the Parthenon Sculptures are not freestanding works of art but integral architectural members of one of the most magnificent and best-known monuments in the world: the Parthenon. It is the biggest building on the Acropolis of Athens and was designed and built by the architect Iktinos and the sculptor Pheidias in the 5th c. BC. It was erected to celebrate the victory of the Athenian Democracy that encouraged the creation and development of all the arts as well as of politics, philosophy, theatre and even science as we know them to day. So, the Parthenon is the celebration of the achievements of free, democratic people and for that reason it is an important symbol to the whole world.

That is why it is inconceivable that over half of its celebrated sculptural elements should be exhibited 2000 miles away from the rest and from the actual monument for which they were expressly designed and carved.

The removal of the sculptural elements from the Parthenon

Furthermore, these architectural members were removed from the monument - actually hacked off, - without the consent of the Greek people, who at that time were still under the Ottoman occupation. Shortly after the removal of the sculptures the Greeks began their war of independence and with the help of Western powers, including Britain, gained their freedom and established the new independent nation state of Greece in 1830.

Lord Byron was one of the greatest supporters of the Greek war of independence and died at the siege of Messolonghi in 1824. He was also one of the first and most virulent critics of Lord Elgin's actions.

The legality of the acquisition

The British Museum have always insisted that the Marbles were legally acquired from the then authorities of Athens. Actually distinguished scholars have challenged the legality of the acquisition in recent years. Other evidence has also come to light showing that even the Ottoman authorities themselves queried Lord Elgin's right to remove architectural parts from a building and ship them to Britain.

Recent Developments

During the 61st session of the UN General Assembly held in November 2006 the "Return or restitution of cultural property to the countries of origin" was debated and resulted in a new resolution reaffirming previous UN resolutions. Recalling for the protection of cultural property, prohibiting illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property, and further acknowledgment and recognition of statutes based around cultural heritage.

To view the full UN Resolution please click the following link UN Resolution

In the framework of the activities of the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation, Greece  hosted an international conference for lawyers, museum professionals and experts in the field of the return of cultural property on 17 and 18 March 2008 at the New Acropolis Museum in Athens.

This conference was the first in a series of international gatherings organized by UNESCO and its Member States to foster awareness and provide fora for reflection and exchanges on the issue of the return of cultural property. This meeting also provided an opportunity to consider means of strengthening the action of the Intergovernmental Committee.

This first international conference brought together a select number of high profile professionals who have been involved in discussions leading to the return or reunification of cultural property. The first day of the conference was devoted to the presentation of individual return cases by those involved. On the second day, discussions were held around four thematic workshops related to the debate on returns. The proceedings of the conference will be published and made available for the 15th session of the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation, scheduled for June 2009.

Conclusions of the Athens International Conference on the Return of Cultural Objects to their Countries of Origin
Athens, 17-18 March 2008

Experts on the issue of the return of cultural objects to their countries of origin, who participated in the first International Conference held in Athens, on 17th and 18th March 2008, within the framework of the meeting co-organized by the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation and the Hellenic Ministry of Culture, in the presence of the Member States of the Committee have reached the following conclusions:

  • It is important that UNESCO organise international conferences, so that experts intensify their study of the issue of the return of cultural property to its country of origin, in order to produce viable and realistic solutions;
  • Cultural heritage constitutes an inalienable part of a people’s sense of self and of community, functioning as a link between the past, the present and the future;
  • It is essential to sensitize the public about this issue and especially the younger generation. An information campaign may prove very effective toward that end;
  • Certain categories of cultural property are irrevocably identified by reference to the cultural context in which they were created (unique and exceptional artworks and monuments, ritual objects, national symbols, ancestral remains, dismembered pieces of outstanding works of art). It is their original context that gives them their authenticity and unique value;
  • The role of the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation must be strengthened through the necessary means, resources and infrastructure. Effort should be made to encourage mediation either through the Committee or by other means of alternative dispute resolution;
  • Requests and negotiations for the return of cultural goods can work as a vehicle for cooperation, collaboration, sharing, joint research and economic promotion;
  • In recent years a clear tendency towards the return of cultural objects to their countries of origin has been developed on legal, social and ethical grounds. The return of cultural objects is directly linked to the rights of humanity (preservation of cultural identity and preservation of world heritage);
  • Museums should abide by codes of ethics. On this basis, museums should be prepared to initiate dialogues for the return of important cultural property to its country or community of origin. This should be undertaken on ethical, scientific, and humanitarian principles. The cooperation, partnership, goodwill and mutual appreciation between the parties concerned could lead to joint research programs and exchange of technical expertise.

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