February 14, 2009

Arguments for & against the return of the Elgin Marbles

Posted at 6:03 pm in Elgin Marbles

A summary of the key arguments / points on both sides of the Parthenon Marbles debate.

The First Post

Should Britain return the Elgin Marbles?


Cultural treasures from ancient civilisations belong in the places they come from. Museums in Sweden, Germany, America and the Vatican have already acknowledged this and returned items taken from the Acropolis. The British museum should follow suit and put an end to more than two centuries of bad feeling in Greece.

Since 1975 Greece has been carefully restoring the Acropolis. Athens now undoubtedly has the facilities to look after the sculptures properly – the specially designed New Acropolis Museum would display the marbles exactly as they appeared on the original temple.

The marbles have suffered considerable damage while in London. In the 19th century, pollution seriously harmed the sculptures and the British Museum’s attempts to clean them, using sandpaper, chisels and acid, also caused irreparable damage.

It is still doubtful whether Lord Elgin was ever truly granted permission to take the marbles. The existing English translation of the 1801 document supposedly signed by the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire has often been denounced as a fake. Furthermore, even if it is genuine, the royal decree gives permission mainly “to examine and view, and also to copy the figures remaining there”. So it is unlikely that the Sultan ever thought that Elgin would actually remove entire frescos and sculptures.


If all restoration demands were met, many of the world’s greatest museums would be emptied of their trademark exhibits. The British museum thinks it best to house the Elgin Marbles in “an international context where cultures can be compared and contrasted across time and place”.

Even if the treasures were returned to Athens, many more of the original sculptures are lost forever, meaning the set will never be complete.

The British protected the marbles from being damaged during the Greek war of independence between 1821 and 1833 when the Parthenon was used as an Ottoman munitions store and subsequently attacked. By and large, the marbles have been better looked after in the specialist Duveen Gallery than they would have been in highly-polluted Athens.

The British Museum’s legal charter states clearly that the institution cannot legally return items from its collection: “The Trustees of The British Museum hold its collections in perpetuity by virtue of the power vested in them by The British Museum Act (1963).”

Before Elgin took the marbles he gained a royal decree from the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire saying that he could do so. While the original document is lost, a version translated into Italian and then into English says: “when they wish to take away any pieces of stone with old inscriptions or figures thereon, that no opposition be made thereto.”

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  1. Mikayla L said,

    12.04.12 at 3:05 pm

    I feel that the Elgin Marbles should be returned to Athens. The Athenian people are very loyal to their patron deities and the Marbles are part of their religion. If we were to take away statues of crosses, or figures of Buddha, other religions would be upset and asked for the items to be returned. It is the same with the Elgin Marbles. No matter what condition they are in, and how they are being cared for, they rightfully belong to the Athenian people, and should be returned to the Parthenon.

  2. Nicholas said,

    01.28.13 at 3:08 pm

    Yes without a doubt the Elgin Marbles should be returned back to the rightful owners, Greece.

  3. Nick Papadakis said,

    06.12.14 at 2:52 am

    The dispute started when soon after the Greek revolution the first Greek governor Ioannis Kapodistrias asked Lord Wellington to help Greece liberate more territories and Lord Wellington refused. Greece then demanded the marbles back but the British refused and went on to call them a British national treasure.
    Since then the progress made was insignificant, even though the latter day British governments did indeed help Greece regain some of its territories that were occupied by the Ottoman Turks and even though Greece did help Great Britain in world war 1 and world war 2.
    Greeks do of course believe that the Greek nation are the owners of those ancient marbles, because when they were taken in 1815 Athens was occupied by the Turks.
    Nowadays the issue remains alive as an archaeological vendetta and those who are happy with it are only the extremist political parties here and there.
    A simple solution exists and it is to display the marbles alternately in Athens and in London.

    The marbles do of course belong to Greece, no matter which museum displays them, because they were made in Greece, not in a lost country that does n’t exist today.
    But sharing is a good solution and puts an end to the useless vendetta, if only practical ways of implementing it are found.

  4. Serena L. said,

    10.29.14 at 6:14 pm

    I most definately believe that the Elgin Marbles should be returned to Greece. Regardless of how they are being taken care of, who has them know or what great museums were created because of it, they are originally part of Greeces culture and society, and need to be put back where they belong. I feel that works of art not being in there own land, which they were created in, gives the art less “aww”, and not given a change to be greatful and have a true experience.

  5. Paris miliopulos said,

    10.31.14 at 10:38 pm

    Elgin was England’s biggest thief???lord of the thiefs.

  6. MPM said,

    12.05.14 at 9:03 am

    Laws ensure that opinion counts for nothing.

    It is right and proper that the legal process that was in place at the time be enforced today. The law is both black and white, and enforceable and therefore must be seen to be – throughout history, otherwise we are in danger of undermining society.

    As I understand it Elgin legally (under international law) acquired the marbles and therefore was the rightful owner of the items. Therefore he had the right to decide how the items would be treated in the future. This is nothing to do with Greece.

    For example I own a house that was built by someone else.

    I acquired the house legally by purchasing from a seller who had the rights to sell. The law now protects me from someone trying to take back the house – such as the builders grandchildren who might decide they should inherit – and try to take my property back.

    With respect to the marbles the law is the same. Someone purchased the marbles from a seller who at the time had the right to sell the items – regardless whether you agree or not – Elgin bought them in good faith and is the legal owner. He then decided to give them to the British museum.

    Therefore they do not belong to Greece and your opinion in law is not important or taking into account.

  7. Matthew said,

    12.05.14 at 9:30 am

    I believe your argument is not entirely correct (and if it was, highly qualified lawyers would not be wasting time looking at this case).

    Elgin never gave particularly convincing evidence of a right to ownership of the sculptures – only 2 versions of a so called Firman, in different languages, not of which appeared to be the final version. There werre slight differences between the two documents &for that matter, both were closer to a formal letter & did not bear any of the hallmarks of an actual firman.

    Even if the documents Elgin submitted to parliament were in order & gave the authorisation from the correct authorities, it is still did not give authorisation to physically remove the sculptures from the building, only to move stuff that was already lying on the ground, and to make sketches & casts.

    Further to this, George Canning (Elgin’s successor in Constantinople) remarked in a letter that he was unconvinced of Elgin’s right of ownership to the sculptures – I did a recent blog post on the subject.

  8. Greg said,

    12.06.14 at 7:32 am

    Why not give them back but charge them for storage.

    The same fee that they charge for an impounded foreign car in Athens per day seems reasonable to me.

  9. David Wright said,

    01.13.15 at 5:04 am

    The Age of Imperialism ended 100 years ago and it is time for the British to enter the 21st Century by returning treasures to the country of origin, whether taken illegally or legally. It would take moral strength, and hopefully other countries would follow suit. Does Greece possess historical works of art created in Britain? Does any country? Has Britain created works of art comparable to the Egyptians, Greeks, or Romans? Or is Britain a nation of takers due to their naval strength and goal of power, profit, and prestige from the 1500s to the 1800s, trying to hold on to the remnants of past dominance around the world? Britain, please step into the 21st Century and demonstrate leadership by returning historical artifacts to their country of origin.

  10. Emma Tattersall said,

    03.25.15 at 5:13 pm

    if the elgin marbles are part of their religion then I think they should be returned to Athens but England did buy it fair and square so there is a good argument for both sides

  11. Matthew said,

    03.27.15 at 9:55 pm

    These are quite weird arguments. England did not buy it fair and square – Lord Elgin had a permit only to make casts & take pieces of stone that had already fallen to the ground. Similarly, nobody in Greece (well, no sensible people) are trying to suggest that the sculptures should be returned, because they are a part of their religion.

    I think you need to do more research into the case.

  12. paul said,

    07.13.15 at 4:36 pm

    I think you’ll have a hard time convincing the Greeks that a document signed by the Sublime Porte is legally binding.

    The marbles are part of Greece’ heritage, and that is where they belong.

    However, they should be kept in a museum and not put back on the Parthenon to protect them from corrosion. Perhaps replicas can be put up, like the Florentines did with the David and other sculptures.

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