Losing Their Marbles

E.U. requests Elgin Marbles return to Greece from British Museum post-Brexit

Marble statuary from the Parthenon, including portion of the east pediment, were transported from Athens to Britain in the early 19th century and now reside in the British Museum. (Alan Cordova/Flickr)

During his visit to Athens over two hundred years ago, British diplomat Lord Elgin absconded with nearly half of the Parthenon’s architectural marble sculptures and bas relief panels and transported them by sea to Britain over an 11 year period. The event, no doubt, is infamous not only in the minds of Greek citizens, who resent that they are now on display in London’s British Museum. But the absence is especially felt by the curators of Athens’ Acropolis Museum, where the remaining half is displayed among a set of pale facsimiles that will be cheerfully replaced whenever the “Elgin Marbles” return from their unwarranted journey up north.

In a surprising turn of events, it seems the 2,500-year-old statuary might be returned amidst Europe’s current political turmoil. If the United Kingdom wishes to continue trading with the European Union post-Brexit, according to a recently leaked clause in the European Union’s (E.U.) negotiating mandate, it must return the Elgin Marbles back to Greece. The clause’s declaration that the U.K. must now be committed to the “return or restitution of unlawfully removed cultural objects to their country of origin” has put the marbles front-and-center of the raging trade debate. Of course, Britain and Greece have been arguing over the Elgin Marbles for years—Greece claims they were taken without permission while under occupation and should be repatriated, while Britain has claimed this could open the door to returning an untenable amount of cultural assets to other countries.

Interior of a museum hallway lined with Greek marble carvings

The Acropolis Museum is eagerly awaiting the return of the Elgin Marbles to complete its collection in The Parthenon Gallery. The museum has kept spaces open for the remaining marbles in anticipation of their return. (Courtesy Acropolis Museum)

But the transaction is not yet set in stone. Negotiators on either side are set to begin a much-needed conversation next month and will attempt to reach an agreement by November 26, when a trade deal must be presented to European Parliament for ratification. Currently, the U.K. refuses to give up the marbles, stating that their acquisition was lawful at the time given Greece’s occupation within the then-existent Ottoman Empire. According to ARTnews, a spokeswoman for the British government said in a statement on Tuesday that the Elgin Marbles are, therefore, “the legal responsibility of the British Museum,” and that they are “not up for discussion as part of our trade negotiations.”

“I would expect some of these negotiations to be rather difficult,” E.U. aide Stefaan de Rynck told French politician Michel Barnier in a public statement. “Perhaps more difficult than during withdrawal because the scope of issues is much vaster.”

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