Gods repose and processions of men winds through ancient Athens in a group of marble relief panels, figures, and friezes at the center of the most visible restitution case in history. Known as the Parthenon Sculptures, they are also called the Elgin Marbles, after the Scottish nobleman Lord Elgin, who stripped them from the ancient Acropolis in Athens in 1801 and sold them to the British government in 1816. For nearly two centuries the sculptures have been housed in the British Museum as the centerpiece of its Greek galleries. The museum maintains that their acquisition was a legal act of preservation. Critics behind a growing push for their repatriation consider the sculptures emblematic of British imperialism. In October, a UNESCO advisory committee recommended that the British Museum revisit its stance on the marbles and to open dialogue with Greece on their return. The recommendation was bluntly rejected by the institution.
To learn more about the controversial arrival of the Parthenon Sculptures in London, read on.
The Acropolis Under Siege
The Parthenon was constructed between 447 and 432 B.C.E., a period of artistic and military triumph considered the golden age of ancient Greece. The Athenians had expelled a Persian invasion prior to the temple’s construction, preserving their democracy, and the project became symbolic of the epoch-defining battle. Vividly painted sculptures and decorations adorned the lavish temple to the city-state’s patron deity, Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war. Ninety-two carved metopes, square blocks placed between the columns, adorned the exterior walls of the Parthenon, depicting the Trojan War and other mythological battles. Along the entire length of the Parthenon’s inner chamber was a frieze likely depicting a procession to the Acropolis. Two sculptured pediments depict the birth of Athena and the conflict between the goddess and Poseidon over the land which would become Athens.
But the temple fell into a derelict state following the occupation of the Ottoman occupation of Greece in the 15th century. Ottoman troops was repurposed the Parthenon as a mosque (a minaret was even constructed). But around half the site was destroyed in an ensuing battle between the Venetians and the Ottomans. In September of 1687, a Venetian mortar struck the monument, causing an explosion which destroyed its roof but spared its pediments. British press publicized the vulnerability of the monument—“It is to be regretted that so much admirable sculpture as is still extant about this fabric should be all likely to perish from ignorant contempt,” the English antiquarian Richard Chandler wrote in 1770—encouraging western travelers to pillage its treasures in the interest of preservation. Their legal justification was tacit approval from Ottoman authorities.
The former British ambassador to the empire, the Scottish nobleman Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin and 11th Earl of Kincardine, had greater ambitions. In 1799, amid Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, he was sent back to Greece to foster closer relations with the Ottoman sultan Selim III. He was instructed to survey and create casts of the country’s great monuments, so he brought with him a team of British artists led by painter Giovanni Battista Lusieri. But by then, it was difficult to approach the Parthenon and Ottoman troops demanded hefty daily payments for access. Already strapped for funds, Elgin directly appealed to the sultan for a firmen, or special permission, for his project to commence.
On July 6, 1801, the sultan issued the following firmen: “When they wish to take away some pieces of stone with old inscriptions and figures, no opposition be made.” Elgin interpreted this to mean he and his team could not only create copies of the monument but dismantle and export any pieces of interest.
Some of the present restitution debate has focused on Elgin’s interpretation of the firmen. A major 1967 study by British historian William St. Clair concluded that the ambiguous language more likely referred to items uncovered during excavations, not the Parthenon façade itself.
Elgin’s team removed 15 metopes, and 247 feet, or around half of the surviving frieze, including a female sculpture from the portico of Erechtheion and four fragments from a smaller temple to Athena Nike also located on the Acropolis. In 1803, the collection was loaded into some two hundred boxes and transported via the port of Piraeus to England.
The Marbles Arrive in London
Elgin imagined the Marbles would be used for public display, and intended to reconstruct part of the Parthenon. The Venetian sculptor Antonio Canova was even volunteered for the commission. Canova, however, rejected the possibility, stating that “it would be a sacrilege for any man to touch them with a chisel.” In fact, at that time, public opinion in London was divided on the propriety of having removed the marbles from Greece. One of the most vocal critics was the Romantic poet Lord Byron, whose narrative poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage decried British imperialism, and called the removal of the marbles the “last poor plunder.” Byron alludes to Elgin in his annotations of the poem with epithets like “spoiler,” “robber,” and “violator.”
However, not all were moved by the poet’s protests: enormous crowds flocked to see the marbles in 1807 when Elgin installed them in a house near Piccadilly in London. Public interest prompted the British government to consider Elgin’s offer to sell the marbles to the national collection. Despite his titles, Elgin was in serious financial straits after personally covering the cost of shipping the sculptures to England. Including bribes for safe passage, the total price was £74,000—equal to more than $1 million today. In 1816, Parliament created a commission to assess Elgin’s offer that priced the marbles at £35,000. The sale was approved by a margin of two votes.
In 1832, the marbles were relocated to the Elgin Room in the British Museum—the same year Greece won independence from the Ottoman Empire. Successive Greek governments have petitioned for the return of the works. In the 1980s, the government formally asked the British Museum to repatriate the marbles, citing the fact that authorization was given for their removal by an occupying empire, not the Greek government.
An Unresolved Restitution Debate
In a 2021 interview with the Greek newspaper Ta Nea, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson rejected any possibility of the marbles’ return, stating that they had been acquired legally by Elgin. The British Museum maintains that it is the most qualified caretaker of the marbles. But international critics disagree, accusing the museum of housing its Greek and Assyrian collections in dubious conditions.
In 2018, images of water leaking into the Greek galleries was widely circulated across Greek media, to which a museum spokesperson responded that “none of the sculptures have been damaged and the issue has been addressed.”
The following year, the Greek culture minister, Lina Mendoni, said in a statement that the “abandonment shown in the pictures from the British Museum reinforces Greece’s rightful demand for the sculptures’ permanent return to Athens and their reunification with the Parthenon.”
In 2020, the Art Newspaper reported a leak in one of the Assyrian galleries near Parthenon marbles. The paper also publicized photographs of the poor condition of the roof of the Greek galleries. Damages date to World War II, when the galleries were hit during the bombing of London in 1940. (The Parthenon Marbles were safely relocated during the blitz.) The galleries reopened in 1962, but required routine maintenance. A major overhaul of the galleries is underway, but the project is expected to take years to complete.
Debates over safety were reignited in 2021 after heavy rainfall caused water to seep into the museum’s Greek galleries. A British Museum spokeswoman again confirmed that “there was some water ingress in one of the [Greek] galleries,” but maintained that the artifacts were safe.
In a historic move this fall, a UNESCO advisory board responsible for facilitating bilateral negotiations between countries on the matter of cultural property that may have been acquired through illicit means or during periods of colonization officially advised the British Museum to revisit its stance on the marbles. The committee urged the museum to reopen talks with the Greek government. It was the first time the UNESCO intergovernmental commission for the return of cultural property to countries of origin voted unanimously to include an additional text on the return of the Parthenon Marbles to its agenda since Greece first introduced the request at a meeting in 1984.
The U.K. government has since rejected the recommendation, writing in a statement to Artnet News: “We disagree with the Committee’s decision adopted in the closing minutes of the session and are raising issues relating to fact and procedure with UNESCO. . . . Our position is clear—the Parthenon Sculptures were acquired legally in accordance with the law at the time. The British Museum operates independently of the government and free from political interference.”
In an interview with the Greek City Times following the recommendation, Mendoni said the issue “is of an intergovernmental nature—in contrast to claims from the British side that it is a matter for the British Museum—and mainly that Greece has a valid and legal claim to demand the return of the sculptures to their place of birth.”