The Elgin marbles sculptures from the 5th century BC were originally on the pediment of the Parthenon temple in Athens, Greece. These sculptures feature scenes from ancient mythology and are renowned for being the epitome of high classical Greek art. In the early 1800s Lord Elgin, a British ambassador, transported the marbles from Greece to London. The sculptures today remain in the British Museum. Elgin received permission to acquire the marbles from the Ottoman Empire who ruled Greece at the time. Once Greece retook control of their country, the debate over the statues began. One side of the argument believes the marbles should be returned to Greece while the other side asserts they should remain in London. From my research, most scholars believe the marbles should be returned.
“Unveiling the Right Side: A Conversation with Pheidias and Pericles about the Elgin Marbles and Other Matters” by Eleftherios Diamandis is an article in Clinical Chemistry that discusses several issues regarding the Elgin marbles. Diamandis takes a stance that supports the restitution of the sculptures. To persuade the reader the author uses a conversational approach while writing about his experiences in Athens. Diamandis outlines the background of the marbles as he discusses the “evil minds of destruction and greediness” that have gone hand-in-hand with the sculptures’ history. A position against Britain is clear as Diamandis alludes to the unfair purchase by stating Elgin, “paid a few pounds to the Turkish conquerors.” Diamandis also explains the impressive artistry of the marbles themselves as the statues “had taken them months and years to create.” Even though the author advocates returning the marbles, he does acknowledge the other side of the debate. Diamandis notes that if the marbles are actually returned, other countries with ancient artworks could feel threatened. In his conclusion, the author offers a proposal for the future, as he suggests that the United Nations should increase their role in such matters.
Another source that encourages the return of the Elgin marbles is William St. Clair’s Lord Elgin and the Marbles. In his book, St. Clair provides several reasons for his anti-British stance. At one point the author refers to the British Museum’s stewardship as a “cynical sham” and Elgin’s acquisition is described as a “shady deal.” Later St. Clair states that the marbles were acquired through “a mixture of threats and bribes.” Critics of St. Clair, such as I. Jenkins, argue that the accusation of “threats” is made without any true proof. St. Clair also acknowledges the other side of the argument. The author states that Elgin’s acquisition can be seen as a “rescue.” St. Clair concedes that by being located in London more people can view the artworks. He also adds that, unlike Greece, the British have the financial resources needed to store, protect and conserve the works. Similar to Diamandis, he asserts that other museums would feel threatened if the Elgin marbles were returned. St. Clair’s work is commendable as he provides background information that my other sources overlook. For example, the author notes Ittakis was one of the first Greek archaeologists to have an interest in reclaiming the marbles. Another less publicized item offered by St. Clair is that in the 1950s the marbles were used as political leverage during the Cyprus conflict.
While Diamandis and St. Clair are both against the British stance, Emily Goldsleger’s “Contemplating Contradiction: A Comparison of Art Restitution Policies” takes a more neutral position. The article published in The Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society outlines both sides of the debate. Goldsleger depicts one opinion as being “ethical,” whereas the other viewpoint is more “legal” based. One of her arguments is that Britain allows more people to be educated and can afford better preservation. Similar to the prior sources, Goldsleger does an admirable job of providing context for the debate. Besides just stating the facts, the author probes deeper. She reviews how the debate has changed little over the years. Additionally, Goldsleger notes the national and international legislation that is at the heart of the debate often contradicts each other. Next, the author analyzes the Elgin marbles issue by comparing it to the Nazi looting in WWII. Goldsleger notes how virtually all Nazi art is returned without difficulty. This is a stark contrast from the Elgin marbles. According to the author, this happens because there are records of the Nazi looting and Nazi art had a more traditional type of ownership. Another reason provided for the discrepancy is that Greece lacks the support of their allies since the Elgin acquisition was not a crime. The return of Nazi property was supported since the art was obtained through wartime crimes. The author also evaluates the recent chapters of the Parthenon debate. Goldsleger notes how the Greeks no longer use the terms “repatriation” or “return” but are rather aiming for “long-term loans.” At the end of the article, the author considers the implications the Parthenon debate imposes on art administrators.
Cross-border Restitution Claims of Art Looted in Armed Conflicts and Wars and Alternatives to Court Litigations is a book written by Renold Marc-André and several other authors. This piece is the most recent writing I referenced. The text focuses on a study conducted by the European Union and explains legal issues in great depth. The information is more academic in nature compared to my other sources and has a neutral in stance, similar to Goldsleger. Comparable to the other scholarly works this book begins with a historical outline. Next, legal claims of restitution are discussed while focusing particularly on items from “international law” to “soft law.” Following this, legal difficulties are explored as the authors review items such as “statues of limitations.” The text concludes with policy recommendations. While the authors offered useful information, I felt the discussion to be a bit convoluted in nature. Goldsleger was able to make several comparable points while being more succinct.
Goudchaux’s “Letter” featured in Apollo offers one of the few writings that takes a pro-British position. Although the content is relatively concise, Goudchaux provides several points that are omitted from my other sources. Initially the author attempts to make the Parthenon marbles less historically significant. He argues that although the Parthenon exists, the site is not actively used so it is hence not as an important part of Greek culture as Greece claims. Next, the author discusses how Elgin was the only person who wanted the sculptures, as other cultures did not even attempt to acquire them. Goudchaux further discredits the Greeks by describing how they destroyed ancient sites with their subway construction. His strongest argument is that in 1829 the Greek government, freed from the Ottomans, willingly gifted a Parthenon frieze to France’s Louvre.
Various scholars have deliberated the Elgin marbles issue extensively over the years. Most of the scholars in the debate are either pro-Greek and for restitution or take a neutral middle ground position that surveys the argument as a whole. There is a distinct lack of scholars siding with the British. There is a lack of pro-British scholarship because this stance has become taboo. It would make an academic look heartless if they sided with the powerful British rather than the struggling Greeks. Even though most academics support Greece, the marbles still firmly remain in the British Museum. It will be interesting to see if in the future scholars acknowledge this discrepancy and begin to take the less orthodox position by siding with the British. In the best interest of the art world, Britain should maintain their legal rights to the Elgins and develop an ongoing loan process that displays the Elgins in Greece and perhaps other countries.
To justly evaluate the ownership rights of the Elgin marbles, it’s important to understand the diverse historical elements contained in these sculptures. While the general public may be unfamiliar with the Elgin marbles, these works are widely recognized in academia due to their artistic, cultural and political significance. The marbles’ relevance is based on their original location on the Parthenon, a sacred ancient Greek temple in Athens. In about 425 BC, the famed Greek statesman Pericles organized the construction of the Parthenon as a temple for Athena, the patron goddess of Athens. The sculptor Phidias, commissioned to design the Parthenon, carved the friezes using the bas-relief technique, in which the sculpted figures are raised from the background. Additionally, Phidias carved the pediment sculptures “in the round” which means they are visible from all angles. Phidias’ fine craftsmanship is evident through details such as classical figures and drapery which appears like real fabric, although it is actually stone. The artistic style of the sculptures later influenced renaissance and baroque artists including Michelangelo Bernini, Rubens and Raphael. Design elements of the Parthenon have been a model for classical architecture and also inspired architecture for centuries. For example, the Parthenon’s impact can be found in today’s well-known structures such as the NYC Public Library and Lincoln Memorial. Additional importance of Phidias’s works is revealed as they illustrate Athens’ golden age of cultural and political achievements. The friezes contain a popular Athenian scene, the Panathenaic procession which was an annual event celebrating the god Athena. The procession represents the Athenians’ association with democracy as the lives of the gods and ordinary people appear on an equal level. In several respects the friezes are groundbreaking as they show the importance of common people, the idea of the individual and the first known practice of democracy. Undoubtedly the Elgin marbles are directly linked to ancient Greece, however the friezes have a worldwide appeal since ancient Greece contributed to the history of many civilized societies. A country, such as Britain, that maintains artifacts from ancient Greece may reasonably believe the relics’ global significance justifies the ownership outside of Greece.
Even though many non-Greek societies consider the Elgins as a symbol of their own civilizations, Greece maintains the marbles belong to their country of origin. The contention over the marbles is not surprising since it is reasonable for an entity, such as a society, business or nation, to desire the possession of items related to their history. Such a stance can be seen with artifacts other than the Elgin marbles. The Getty Villa’s “Victorious Youth” bronze statue from antiquity is a source of contention between the United States and Italy. Italy believes it to be theirs as the sculpture originated in Italy. Even the American movie industry successfully applies legal policies to maintain the purchase rights to their prestigious Oscar award. While some argue for a free market for all items, society has accepted measures that eliminate speculation on specific treasured items. To protect artifacts from leaving Italy, current Italian law states that an artifact discovered in Italy, even on private property, becomes government property. Italian law also limits ownership of ancient coins as the law dictates that a coin seller in Italy can only sell to someone located in Italy. In the United States the government does not restrict ownership but openly protects historic structures through strict regulations and codes. Though some entities had the foresight to legally protect their valued items, Greece has no legal basis to acquire the Elgin marbles. Britain, the legal owner of the Elgins, believes the British Museum’s Elgin display is relevant to their exhibit of antiquity and represents a civilization that had a global influence outside of Greece.
Artistic interests support the idea that it is best for the Elgins to be displayed in Greece, the location of origin. Athens, the intended setting for the marbles, will enhance the viewer’s visual experience and promote an appreciation for the Elgin’s style and importance. It is easy to understand the impact of viewing the friezes in the Acropolis Museum while gazing out to the actual ruins of the Parthenon. The Acropolis Museum was designed for the sole purpose of displaying ancient Greek artifacts. The proportions of the building follow ancient Greek scale and the simple, understated architecture focuses the viewer’s attention onto the displays. Another example of the environment’s impact on art involves Egyptian exhibits. When viewing Egyptian artifacts in close proximity to the ruins of massive pyramids, the historic and artistic experience is amplified. On the other hand, when the King Tut exhibits travels on loan to the United States the viewer’s experience will be relatively ordinary compared to the experience at the Egyptian homeland. An additional reason for a country to maintain their historical artifacts is more practical and is based on risks associated with transporting fragile ancient objects. Keeping the items in the original location is simply less likely to cause harm through damage or loss. However, since the Elgins are no longer in their home country, this argument actually supports the opinion for Elgins to remain in the Britain Museum. For the marbles damage is a particularly significant risk because the appendages of the figures appear to be quite fragile.
The art world’s response to the Elgin issues demonstrates Greece’s global influence as many historians have voiced support for Greece’s stance. Currently, Greece remains optimistic that the Elgins will be displayed in Athens’ Acropolis Museum. The museum’s website highlights the 30meter display of friezes that remains in Greek possession and notes that several museums outside of Greece exhibit smaller sections of the friezes. The website information also includes a cordial acknowledgement of the British Museum’s 50m Elgin exhibit. The Acropolis Museum, with its small display of original friezes, is a source of civic pride and Greece has not allowed the Elgin issues to distract from their respected hi-tech museum. Greece, in the true Olympic spirit, appears as the fierce competitor who is driven to win back the Elgins but can graciously acknowledge their opposition. In contrast, the British Museum’s online information regarding the Elgin marbles contains several articles defending Britain’s lawful possession of the friezes and implying the Greeks have not been open to negotiations. The British Museum’s post contains a subtle level of arrogance and lack of respect for Greece. Such a pompous attitude is likely a reason many academics have sided with Greece, even though the law supports British possession.
Although there are valid reasons to have artifacts remain in their region of origin, advantages exist when important items are located in several locations. It is beneficial to have the Elgins displayed in different museums as history has shown rare artifacts are at risk of damage or loss. Even though wars may not intentionally target works of art, there is a long track record of wartime rampage destroying cultural pieces. The Elgins and the Parthenon experienced most of their damage due to an explosion during the Ottoman’s reign. Additionally, during WWII Caravaggio’s “Saint Matthew and the Angel” was completely destroyed. Today, the art world has found an additional and new risk: terrorism. In the age of terrorism, locations representing cultural heritage are often primary targets. In 2015, there was a terrorist attack at an African museum in Tunis. Furthermore, disasters such as floods, fires and earthquake have resulted in the loss and damage of many historical relics. Recently, the fire at the Notre Dame in Paris was a reminder of the vulnerability of cultural treasures. The idea of strategically locating significant items to ensure they exist for future generations is not a new phenomenon. On a small scale, individuals can protect their most prized possessions in fireproof safes or bank vaults. For centuries, societies and historians have created time capsules to ensure cultural elements are shared with future generations and civilizations. Even today the world can see a time capsule at work. In northern Europe there is a so-called “doomsday vault.” In an isolated setting, this building has the goal of saving earth’s plants from disasters. This “doomsday vault” is a global effort and a similar concept should be taken for art. The art community should appreciate that the existence of the treasured marbles in different museums helps to ensure the artifacts survive for future generations.
The Elgin marbles, similar to other historic artifacts, require an environment that can provide the costly care needed for their preservation. Priority should be given to protecting the Elgins rather than locating the artifacts in their place of origin. Even though the modern Acropolis Museum could likely care for the Elgins, Greece’s history of economic and social turmoil leads to concern regarding Greece’s long term commitment to the Elgins. In contrast, the ability for Britain and the British Museum to preserve the Elgins is not questioned as they represent a world leader and stable well-funded institution. The Elgin display in the British Museum has received ongoing impressive care and the curatorial staff even discovered how the Elgins were originally dyed blue. Additionally, the British Museum with a location within a train ride to Europe, can share the Elgins with a large number of visitors. Travel to Greece is more complex and the country’s tourism levels do not come close to that of Britain. The British Museum’s ability to share the Elgin’s history with a vast audience also ensures continued funding for their preservation. Influential corporate sponsors and charitable foundations are proud to be associated with popular art exhibits that connect the global community. Samsung and BP are long-term sponsors of the British Museum, while the Acropolis Museum merely has the backing of the European Union and their own government. Currently the Acropolis website does not indicate any corporate sponsors. The future will determine if Greece can maintain the stability and economic prosperity needed to devote funds to preservation. In the meantime, Greece is fortunate that the British Museum provides exceptional care for the Elgins and their exhibits demonstrate respect for ancient Athens’ contributions to civilization.
The idea of loaning museum-worthy items has been particularly successful over the years. In the realm of art, the King Tut exhibit has traveled the world for decades. This exhibit allows individuals to see coveted artifacts that would otherwise be an expensive plane ride away. Such exhibits are so successful that it requires people to order tickets in advance. Besides the famous King Tut traveling display, there are also more minor works that have travelled the world. In 2019, for the first time, Pontormo’s “Visitation” has visited the United States at the Getty Museum. Much like the King Tut exhibit, “Visitation” allows people to view a legendary work with only the price of a modest parking fee. Even treasured items not within the arts have been successfully loaned in recent years. China has loaned pandas to zoos throughout the world. Otherwise inaccessible to many, China has been applauded for allowing other societies to care for their giant pandas.
There are many benefits to loaning the Elgin marbles. Firstly, such a loan would be a great public relations move for the countries involved. For the British perspective, they would no longer have to be defensive and appear as the aggressor that so many scholars depict them to be. Additionally, the British would be able to receive diverse and important items in exchange for the marbles. New and fresh items would appeal to the general public, as individuals could get bored of simply seeing the same items again and again. Some potential items the British can receive include Myron’s Discobolus or the Charioteer of Delphi. From the Greek perspective, loaning the marbles would finally allow the sculptures to return to their ancestral home. Trading some artifacts in exchange for the statues is a small price to pay considering the countless hours of legal deliberation that has transpired. The international community can also benefit from the loaning. The loans do not just need to be between Britain and Greece but can expand to other countries as well. For example, museums in the United States lack items from European antiquity and through an Elgin loan these museums could expand their classical exhibits. In exchange for the marbles, the United States can offer Space Age related items that would otherwise not be present in the British Museum. Even though moving the marbles would be quite a difficult task, there is precedent as Stanford’s Cantor Museum moved dozens of over life-sized bronze Rodin sculptures from Paris to California.
Many academics support Greece’s viewpoint and believe the Elgins should be returned to Greece. The issue is complex since the Elgins are important artifacts related to Greek history, but Britain is the legal owner of the Elgins. Since each country has reasons to maintain the artifacts, the best compromise solution is to share the Elgins through an international modified loan or trade process. When the loan process is implemented both sides should be satisfied with the outcome and one of the art world’s foremost debates will finally come to an end.
BuzzFeed News. “Second Man Arrested In Connection To Tunis Museum Attack.” BuzzFeed News, BuzzFeed News, 28 May 2015, www.buzzfeednews.com/article/buzzfeednews/gunshots-reported-in-tunisias-parliament.
Diamandis, E. P. “Unveiling the Right Side: A Conversation with Pheidias and Pericles about the Elgin Marbles and Other Matters.” Clinical Chemistry, vol. 56, no. 6, 2010, pp. 1042–1044.
Goldsleger, Emily Winetz. “Contemplating Contradiction: A Comparison of Art Restitution Policies.” The Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society, vol. 35, no. 2, 2005, pp. 109–120.
Goudchaux, Guy Weill. “Letter: the opening in June of the Acropolis Museum in Athens has rekindled the quarrel over the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum. Guy Weill Goudchaux—who is neither British nor Greek—invites us to consider some points.” Apollo, Sept. 2009, p. 18.
Jenkins, I. “The Elgin Marbles: Questions of Accuracy and Reliability.” International Journal of Cultural Property, vol. 10, no. 01, 2001.
Lazarus, Sarah. “High-Speed Climate Change Melts the Ground in This Arctic Town.” CNN, Cable News Network, 27 Mar. 2019, edition.cnn.com/2019/03/26/europe/longyearbyen-doomsday-vault-climate-change-intl/index.html.
“Parthenon Sculptures: Position of the British Museum Trustees.” British Museum, www.britishmuseum.org/about_us/news_and_press/statements/parthenon_sculptures/trustees_statement.aspx.
Renold Marc-André, et al. Cross-Border Restitution Claims of Art Looted in Armed Conflicts and Wars and Alternatives to Court Litigations. European Parliament, 2016.
St. Clair, William. Lord Elgin and the Marbles. Oxford University Press, 2003.
“The Parthenon Gallery.” The Parthenon Gallery | Acropolis Museum, www.theacropolismuseum.gr/en/content/parthenon-gallery.