Greek government review legal options and submit Unesco request for settlement in ramping up of Parthenon reacquisition campaign

The Art Newspaper sheds light on the dispute, though the end is not yet in sight


The Greek government has stepped up its efforts to secure the return of sculptures from the Parthenon that have been in London for more than 200 years. It is exploring a variety of legal options while it waits for a response to a request made via Unesco to seek a negotiated settlement over the sculptures in the British Museum. Greece invited the UK to join in mediation in July 2013. The relevant Unesco committee is now urging the UK to send its response by March next year.

In the meantime, The Art Newspaper understands that the Greek government has asked international lawyers to provide all legal options by that date. Among the lawyers is the leading British QC Geoffrey Robertson of Doughty Street Chambers, who has been advising the Greek government since 2011. Last month, Robertson made a much-publicised visit to Athens with his colleague Amal Clooney (née Alamuddin). The three-day visit included a tour of the Acropolis Museum, which opened in 2009 and where around 40 per cent of the surviving sculptures from the Parthenon are on display.

Where are the surviving Parthenon sculptures?

London: the British Museum displays around half of the surviving works: 56 blocks of frieze (247ft), 15 metopes (panels) and 17 pediment figures.

Athens: the Acropolis Museum displays 52 blocks of frieze, 38 metopes and 12 pediment figures, while two blocks of frieze and 15 metopes are preserved in situ on the temple. Fragments from the same pieces are in London and Athens.

Other collections: fragments of sculpture are in the Louvre in Paris (one frieze block, one metope, fragments of the frieze and other metopes and a head from the pediment), the Vatican Museums, the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, the Museums of the University of Würzburg in Bavaria, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, and the Glyptothek in Munich.

What is the legal status of the British Museum’s works?

The UK government argues that the sculptures in London are the legal property of the British Museum, and that they were legitimately acquired in 1816 after the government bought Lord Elgin’s collection. The terms of the British Museum Act 1963 would need to be changed by Parliament before the museum’s trustees could deaccession any object that is not a duplicate. Greece has never recognised Britain’s legal ownership of the sculptures, arguing that the former British ambassador to the Sublime Porte at Constantinople (now Istanbul) had permission from the Ottomans, who occupied Athens, to record and make casts of the sculptures but not to remove any.

Could the UK lend its sculptures to Greece?

In theory, the British Museum could lend its works to Greece for temporary display, but Greece has never requested loans. Greece wants the UK to return the sculptures that are in London so that they can go on permanent display in the Acropolis Museum in Athens.

Could Britain provide Greece with copies?

The British Museum has provided a full set of casts in the past. The Acropolis Museum already displays casts of missing metopes alongside originals.

Did the British Museum damage the sculptures by over-cleaning them?

In the late 1930s, the works in the British Museum were controversially cleaned before going on display in the new Duveen Gallery. A keeper took early retirement and an assistant keeper resigned when it emerged that unauthorised tools and abrasives, not just soap and water, had been used to clean the sculptures. The British Museum says that the sculptures were not harmed, but says that the method of cleaning, and its subsequent cover-up, was a mistake.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Greece increases pressure to return Parthenon sculptures'