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Greek minister argues against Parthenon Marbles legal action

Further coverage of the statement by Greek Culture Minister Nikos Xydakis [1] not to take legal action over the return of the Parthenon Sculptures at the current time.

As I mentioned in the other batch of articles [2] on the issue, there seems to be little new information in any of these stories over and above what was originally stated. The stories have instead become retellings of the narrative of the acquisition of the Marbles, adjusted according to the newspaper’s own leanings on the issue.

I have now been quoted in at least three of the articles, which is impressive, as I have only spoken to the writer of one of them.

David Hill, Amal Clooney & Geoffrey Robertson in Athens [3]

David Hill, Amal Clooney & Geoffrey Robertson in Athens

Artnet [4]

Greece Says No to Amal Clooney’s Elgin Marbles Advice to Sue British Museum
Amah-Rose Abrams
Thursday, May 14, 2015

Amal Clooney is still working hard to win back the Elgin Marbles from the British Museum and return them to Greece, filing a 150-page document recommending the Greek government takes the British Museum to the International Court.

However, according to the Times, Greece has promptly snubbed Clooney’s efforts and decided not to follow her advice, despite Clooney and her colleague Geoffrey Robertson telling Greece that it was a case of “now or never” in the lengthy battle involving the ancient Greek artworks.

According to the Daily Mail, the report promotes the International Court option on the basis that actions in the UK or European courts would prove too costly for Greece. Meanwhile, Greece seems keen on continuing diplomatic negotiations, rather than going through legal channels.

The wife of George Clooney embarked on the latest of many past attempts by Greece to return the Elgin Marbles on returning from honeymoon last year (see Can George Clooney’s Wife Rescue the Elgin Marbles? ), with the financial backing of an anonymous Greek shipping magnate (see Greek Shipping Magnate Is the Money Behind Amal Clooney’s Campaign for the Elgin Marbles).

Since then, the disagreement has intensified as the British Museum agreed to lend the marbles to the Hermitage Museum in Russia (See Fight Breaks Out Over Loan of Elgin Marbles to Russia). This caused consternation in Greece, as one of the key arguments for the refusal of their return is that they are too fragile to be moved.

There is also no strong feeling in the UK that they should remain in the country. In fact, according to a survey taken by the British Government, 50 percent of people asked thought that the marbles should be returned to Greece (see Most Britons Don’t Even Want the Elgin Marbles).

The dispute is also now having a negative impact on the running of the British Museum, as Athens’s Museum of Cycladic Art refused to lend works to the British Museum after years of friendly co-operation (see Will Greece Deny British Museum Loan Over Elgin Marbles Controversy?).

Forbes [5]

Amal Clooney loses in Greece’s battle for Parthenon Marbles
5/15/2015 @ 1:05PM 4,319 views

Neither legal reasons, nor celebrity support, has been enough to convince the battered Greek government to sue the U.K. over the controversial Elgin Marbles – and the British are boasting about their victory.

Not even when both the legal option and the celebrity element are combined in the person of Amal Clooney, wife of superstar George Clooney, and member of the group of human rights lawyers recommending a lawsuit against the British government as the best chance Greece has to win back their marbles.

“With the end of Amal Clooney’s lawsuit against our government, the British Museum can now continue to do the world an enormous service,” the Telegraph enthused.

Although for many observers this was a “now or never” opportunity — especially because the Clooneys were joined by cultural activist groups and other celebrities including Liam Neeson, who recently accused the U.K. government of stealing the artefacts — the unexpected move is understandable.

Mired in a seemingly endless economic swamp, crushed by budget austerity measures demanded by its European partners in order to obtain bailout funds that would save it from bankruptcy, Greece cannot afford to alienate yet another major European partner, especially the newly-invigorated government of Prime Minister David Cameron, still basking in its overwhelming electoral triumph.

Still, the reversal by the left-leaning, Syriza-led Greek government has not been received favorably at home, particularly by the various organizations long pushing for the reuniting of the sculptures, of which about half still reside Athens’s Acropolis Museum.

The decision has been described in Greece as “devastating” and “deplorable.”

In a 150-page report issued this week, Amal Clooney and her legal team had urged Greece to legally request the repatriation of the marbles by taking Britain to the International Court of Justice. But Greece’s Culture Minister, Nikos Xydakis, announced that his country will, in fact, drop its legal claim. Instead, it will pursue diplomatic and political avenues.

“The Syriza government is keenly aware that British courts are recognized the world over for their experience in resolving international disputes, including those involving British interests and institutions,” the Telegraph observed. “So, quite reasonably, the new Greek government has concluded that an international court will probably not reach a different conclusion.”

The sculptures, friezes, pediment figures and other pieces known formally as the Parthenon Marbles decorated the Parthenon temple in Athens from 447 BC until they were removed in 1801 by agents of the British diplomat Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin, who bought them from the Ottoman Empire, where he was ambassador, and then sold them in 1816 to the British Museum.

The bitter dispute has lasted over 30 years during which the British government has repeatedly and “respectfully declined the request.” The government has insisted, among other reasons, that Greece wouldn’t take proper care of the pieces, even after Greece built a new state-of the-art museum at the foot of the Acropolis precisely to rebut that argument.

Most recently, the British Museum rejected a proposal by Unesco to mediate in the dispute, to which Minister Xydakis responded by accusing Britain of “negativism” and a “lack of respect.” But given Greece’s delicate economic situation, he cannot maintain his belligerent posture.

The Telegraph has been loud in its support for the British claim: “This is unsurprising as, contrary to widespread misconception, there was nothing illegal about the way in which Lord Elgin saved the Parthenon Sculptures from acute ongoing destruction. The mauling had started when the Greek church smashed up a large number of the ancient temple’s carvings in the fifth century. The Venetians then blew up chunks of the building in 1687. And in the 1800s, when Lord Elgin arrived in Athens, the occupying Ottomans were grinding the sculptures up for limestone and using them for artillery target practice.”

You have to ask, given the ongoing fracas, whether it’s a coincidence that the British Museum currently is showing Defining Beauty, The Body in Ancient Greek Art, an unprecedented exhibition of Greek sculptures that include its own collection — among them the Elgin Marbles — as well as pieces on loan from other world museums to showcase the evolution of ancient Greek ideas about aesthetics.

The exhibition runs until July 15.

Neos Kosmos [6]

The Marble saga goes on
Greece rules out suing British Museum over Parthenon Marbles
18 May 2015

Greece is stepping back from a fight with Britain over ownership of the Parthenon Marbles.

The Greek culture minister has declared that Athens will not pursue legal action to settle the bitter, decades-old dispute, despite the advice of international lawyers.

The move comes after a team of human rights lawyers in London, including Amal Clooney, told Greece in a 150-page report this week that suing the British government would offer the best chance of retrieving the sculptures if Britain rejected additional formal Greek requests to return them.

But the culture minister, Nikos Xydakis, suggested that the path of litigation was fraught with peril.

“You cannot go to court over every issue,” he said in an interview on Greek television.

“Besides, in international courts, the outcome is uncertain.”

Instead, Mr Xydakis said, he viewed the best means of securing the marbles as being through diplomacy.

“The road to reclaiming the return of the sculptures is diplomatic and political,” he said.

For decades, the Greek and British authorities have fought over the collection of sculptures and artefacts obtained in Athens by Lord Elgin, a British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, in the early 19th century.

The collection includes many pieces from the Parthenon, some of which Lord Elgin is said to have asked to be sawed off so that he could decorate his mansion in Scotland.

He later sold the pieces to pay off debts.

Independent [7]

Greece drops legal case to reclaim the Elgin Marbles from the British Museum, minister says
Adam Withnall
Thursday 14 May 2015

Greece has ruled out making a legal challenge to reclaim the Elgin Marbles from the British Museum, rejected the advice of a team of lawyers that included Amal Clooney.

Clooney and the leading British QC Geoffrey Robertson helped prepare a 150-page report recommending Athens take its case to the International Court of Justice or even the European Court of Human Rights, in what would have represented a major escalation in the long-term campaign to have the artefacts returned.

But in a surprise move, the Greek government’s culture minister Nikos Xydakis told Mega TV that “one cannot [just] go to court over whatever issue”.

He did not say that Greece would be renouncing its claim to the marbles completely, but that a court verdict was “uncertain” and the best way to returning the sculptures was “diplomatic and political”.

Greece has been demanding the return of the marbles for the past 30 years, and last year commissioned the team including Clooney to assess their legal options.

The sculptures, about half of those adoring the Parthenon temple above Athens, were taken by Lord Elgin in the early 1800s. He later sold them to the British Government after getting into financial trouble, and they have been kept in the British Museum ever since.

The lawyers suggested Greece first make a formal complaint then go to The Hague and Strasbourg. Their report claimed that, if an international court accepted jurisdiction, there would be a “75 to 80 per cent chance” of success.

A spokesman for the Department for Culture, Media & Sport under new Culture Secretary John Whittingdale said: “The Parthenon sculptures were acquired legally in accordance with the law of the time and the British Museum is the rightful owner.”

Pappas Post [8]

Greek Government Rejects Amal Clooney’s Report; Drops Legal Action Against Britain for Return of Parthenon Marbles
By Gregory Pappas
May 14, 2015

The Greek government has rejected advice by human rights attorney Amal Clooney to wage a legal battle for the Parthenon Marbles and has dropped the case all together.

Less than 48 hours after receiving the report from the attorneys, Greek Culture Minister Nikos Xydakis said that the route to retrieving the marbles from the British Museum lay in diplomatic and political channels and not international courts where outcomes were far from assured.

Xydakis was speaking barely 48 hours after receiving a 150-page report from Clooney and her partners exhorting the Greek government to pursue legal channels immediately. The report described a “now or never” opportunity for Greece and advised it to take the British Museum to the international court of justice.

“The British adhere to international law,” said Clooney who co-authored the report with Geoffrey Robertson and Norman Palmer, pre-eminent experts in cultural restitution. “The Greek government has never taken advantage of this Achilles heel. You must take legal action now or you may lose the opportunity to do so due to future legal obstacles.”

But Xydakis insisted that “low-key persistent work” was instead required, as the international climate was gradually turning to Greece’s favor.

The move comes at a time when the Greek position was gaining in momentum after a thirty year struggle to gain popular, diplomatic and political support for the case.

In March, a movement from within the British Parliament undertaken by MP Andrew George called for the government to “demonstrate that Britain is prepared to… reunite these British-held Parthenon sculptures with those now displayed in the purpose-built Acropolis Museum in the shadow of the monument to which they belong, the Parthenon in Athens”.

Many high profile celebrities, politicians and international figures were also jumping on the Greek bandwagon.

The sudden about face by Xydakis has left many people bewildered and confused.

“Diplomatic and political efforts have been tried since the mid-1980s and made very little progress,” said Matthew Taylor, at the International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures. “To reject it so rapidly comes across as a something of a kneejerk rejection of any efforts by the previous administration rather than something that has been fully considered,” he said.

Scotsman [9]

Greece rules out Elgin Marbles legal action
Thursday 14 May 2015

GREECE has ruled out making a legal challenge to reclaim the Elgin Marbles from the British Museum, rejecting the advice of international lawyers.

The country’s culture minister Nikos Xydakis said Greece would instead pursue a “diplomatic and political” approach to return the sculptures.

In doing so, he snubbed the counsel of lawyers including Amal Clooney and QC Geoffrey Robertson, who had helped ­prepare a 150-page report ­recommending Athens take its case to the International Court of Justice.

This would have been a major escalation in the long-running campaign to have the artefacts returned.

However, in an unexpected move, Mr Xydakis told Greek TV that “one cannot just go to court over whatever issue. Besides, in international courts the outcome is uncertain.”

Dennis Menos, of the International Association for the ­Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures, said the decision by the new government in Athens had “devastated the Greek position”.

He said: “I’m sorry that this statement was made. Court action was always an option and now that has been eliminated.”

Greek and British authorities have long fought over the collection of 5th-century BC sculptures taken from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin to decorate his mansion in the early 19th century.

The British Parliament eventually bought the collection in 1816 and presented it to the museum.

Greece has been demanding the return of the marbles for the past 30 years, and last year commissioned a team including Ms Clooney, wife of the actor George Clooney, to assess its legal options.

The team suggested that Greece make a formal complaint, then go to the international court where there would be a “75 to 80 per cent chance” of success.

A spokesman for the UK ­Department for Culture, Media and Sport under new Culture ­Secretary John Whittingdale said: “The Parthenon sculptures were acquired legally in ­accordance with the law of the time and the British Museum is the rightful owner.”

In December, Greek prime minister Antonis Samaras hit out at the museum’s loan of one of the sculptures to Russia, calling it an “affront” to the Greek people and insisting that the collection had been “looted” from the Parthenon.

Museum director Neil ­MacGregor indicated that he would be willing to consider a similar loan of one of the statues to Greece – but only if the authorities promised to ­eventually return it to the London establishment.

Washington Post [10]

Amal Clooney, the Elgin Marbles and the bitter legacy of empire
By Michael E. Miller
May 15

A woman can’t have it all. And neither can every country.

Amal Clooney, blessed with brains, beauty and a handsome Hollywood star for a husband, has come up short in her quest to restore the Elgin Marbles to their place of origin.

Last year, the Greek government hired Clooney’s law firm to make its case for the famous sculptures, which once graced the Parthenon and the Acropolis but now sit in the British Museum. But on Wednesday, Greece unexpectedly rejected Clooney’s recommendation to take Britain to the International Court of Justice over the artifacts.

“You cannot go to court for every issue,” said Greek Culture Minister Nikos Xydakis. “And in international court, the outcome is always uncertain. Things are not that simple.”

Instead, he said Greece would pursue less confrontational means to retrieving the sculptures.

“The road to reclaiming the return of the sculptures is diplomatic and political,” Xydakis said.

The about-face from Greece’s recently elected left-leaning government angered advocates who have long pushed for the return of the priceless artifacts. Dennis Menos of the International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures said the decision had “devastated the Greek position.”

“I’m sorry that this statement was made,” he told the Associated Press. “[Court action] was always an option and now that has been eliminated.”

For more than 200 years, the Elgin Marbles have been as controversial as they have been coveted. They were removed from Greece at the beginning of the 19th century by Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin, and eventually sold to the British Museum. But the details about how, exactly, Bruce obtained the marbles are still in dispute two centuries later.

Bruce was Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, which then included Greece. A history buff, Bruce arrived to find the Parthenon and Acropolis ravaged by centuries of looting and war. The Parthenon was particularly damaged. The Ottomans had often used it to store munitions and the building exploded during a 17th century Venetian assault.

According to Bruce, he intended to make plaster casts of the sculptures. But when he arrived, he found locals burning broken sculptures for their lime. Under the aegis of a questionable document obtained from Ottoman authorities, Bruce began removing huge sections of the sculptures and sending them to Britain.

Legal battles have been raging ever since. Some scholars have argued that Bruce’s papers authorized him to remove the marbles. Others say he never had any documentation at all.

Many Britons have come out in favor of returning the sculptures. In 1985, Labour Party leader and prime minister hopeful Neil Kinnock made the Elgin Marbles a major campaign issue, claiming that without them the Parthenon was “like a smile missing a tooth.”

Even at the time of their taking, there was opposition to the idea. Lord Byron called the ancient Greek sculptures “misshapen monuments” and called Bruce a vandal.

But Bruce didn’t make money off of arduously assembling the artifacts in England. He first asked the British government to reimburse him for the £70,000 he spent shipping the statues. When the government refused, he settled for half price, selling them to the British Museum instead.

The dispute over the marbles is more than just a diplomatic standoff, however. It strikes at the heart of a still sensitive debate over empire and its lingering legacy.

Since the sculptures were first taken, Bruce’s defenders have argued that he actually saved them from further ruin.

“During fighting in the 1820’s, hundreds of the marble blocks were turned into defenses and dismantled so that their lead clamps could be turned into bullets,” John Tierney wrote in the New York Times in 2003, shortly after the looting of the National Museum of Iraq. “But by that time the soldiers couldn’t damage the Parthenon’s most exquisite pieces. The best marbles had been removed two decades earlier by Lord Elgin for his private collection in England. His methods were crude by modern standards, but with his interest in history, he was a dedicated preservationist compared with the officials and soldiers in 19th-century Athens and modern Baghdad.”

Tierney’s comment cut to the complicated core of empire: on the one hand, the British pillaged cultures around the world, from Egypt to Greece to India. On the other hand, that pillaging created the world’s greatest museums. It’s a paternalistic relationship that many in Britain don’t want to shake, but that other countries consider empire’s lingering offense.

“Private collectors like Lord Elgin used to finance much of world’s archaeological work, but today they would be criminals,” Tierney pointed out. “The great collections of Iraqi materials sitting far from looters, in museums in London, Paris, Chicago and Philadelphia, would be illegal to create today. Like many other countries, Iraq has banned the export of antiquities and made each new discovery the property of the government. Besides appealing to national pride, these restrictions are popular with archaeologists who want to keep artifacts away from private collectors.”

The current standoff between Greece and Britain has only grown more bitter in recent years. In December, the British Museum agreed to loan some of the prized sculptures — to Russia.

“The great things of the world should be shared and enjoyed by the people of the world,” said Richard Lambert, chairman of the board of trustees of the museum. Museum director Neil MacGregor said Athens should be “delighted” that its artifacts were going on display.

But the Greek prime minister at the time, Antonis Samaras, called the loan “an affront” to his country. He said the artifacts had been “plundered” and demanded their return.

Greece has been preparing for the sculptures’ return for years. In 2009, it opened a new Acropolis Museum with enough space to display the Elgin Marbles.

Just last month, however, Lambert said the British Museum had decided to “respectfully decline” an offer by UNESCO to mediate the dispute between the two countries.

The standoff came to a head six months ago when Greece hired Amal Clooney to push for the sculptures’ return. Earlier this week, she gave Greece her 150-page report, which recommended the country sue Britain to retrieve the artifacts. But on Wednesday, Greece declined.

Despite the setback, public opinion in England is slowly shifting in favor of returning the marbles. Lord Byron, it seems, had it right:

Cold is the heart, fair Greece, that looks on thee,
Nor feels as lovers o’er the dust they loved;
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatched thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!