The United Kingdom has been urged to reconsider its position on the Parthenon Sculptures and to negotiate with Greece on the return of the cultural treasures following a recent UNESCO meeting, which concluded that the matter was “intergovernmental” rather than one that remained on an institutional level only.
The UNESCO intergovernmental commission for the return of cultural property to countries of origin voted unanimously for the first time at its 22nd session to include the return of the Parthenon Sculptures in its decision and recommendation documents, marking a major step forward since Greece first introduced the request to the meeting’s agenda in 1984.
“Both texts, the recommendation and the decision, are a very important development in our country’s perfectly legal claim,” said Lina Mendoni, Greece’s minister of culture and sports, in a statement following last week’s conclusion of the session. Last summer, in a television interview Mendoni had put direct pressure on the British Museum for the return of the 2500-year-old objects.
“The commission urges the United Kingdom to reconsider its position and to negotiate with Greece, acknowledging that the matter is intergovernmental—contrary to the British side’s claim that the case concerns the British Museum alone—and primarily that Greece is rightly and legally claiming the return of the sculptures to their land of origin.”
The sculptures have been in the collection of the British Museum and a controversy for nearly two centuries. It was alleged that the Greek cultural relics were stolen but the British Museum maintained that the items were legally acquired by Lord Elgin according to an investigation by a parliamentary select committee in 1816, according to a statement by the trustees of the British Museum.
During the UNESCO meeting, the Greek delegation said that the British government has been rejecting an invitation to an open dialogue as the British side has been viewing the matter on an institutional level, and that the British Museum is a legal entity independent from the state.
“One should perhaps remind all concerned, that, as far as international law is concerned, the obligation to return state cultural artifacts lies squarely on the government and not on a museum,” the Greek delegation said.
The Greek delegation also argued that new historical data deriving from the Ottoman era showed that the sculptures were illegally acquired by Lord Elgin at the time, alleging that the British Museum’s possession of the Parthenon Sculptures was against the law.
The British side responded in the meeting that it acknowledged “Greece’s aspiration to reunify the sculptures at the Acropolis Museum” but maintained that the pieces were legally acquired at the time, and that the British Museum was the best place to present the treasures in a wider cultural context to a global audience.
Artnet News has reached out to the British and Greek authorities and the British Museum for comments, but did not hear back by publishing time.