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New Greek laws on cultural property

New laws can help with recent cases involving illegally acquired artefacts – but can rarely apply directly to items outside a country’s own legal jurisdiction. Anything like this though that can help prevent future cases is to be welcomed.

Balkan Travellers [1]

Balkan Travellers
1 February 2008
The Greek Ministry of Culture proposed a law to regulate various rights regarding Greek unmovable and movable cultural monuments.

The rights concern a set of issues, such as acquisition, changes in ownership, mandatory registration and cases in which the monuments can be expropriated and the claimants compensated, as well as collectors’ practices.

The law, which needs to be approved by Parliament before coming into force, also attempts to broaden the authority of national courts in international disputes concerning antiques that were found in Greece.

Because of its rich cultural heritage, Greece has had many disputes over the ownership and smuggling of precious objects, especially those dating to ancient Greek times.

A long-running and perhaps the most significant row involves the so-called Elgin Marbles – a collection of statues from the Parthenon in Athens that are currently owned by and displayed at the British Museum in London.

The marbles (called the Parthenon Marbles by Greeks) were brought to England and later sold to the museum by Lord Thomas Elgin who served as British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when it also included present-day Greece.

Since the 1980s, Greece has continuously protested against the British Museum’s ownership of the statues and argued for their return. Responding to claims that the works should remain in London, where they can be enjoyed by the whole world, the Greek government recently built the modern Acropolis Museum near the site of the Parthenon. In it, visitors can see some of the original marbles that remained in Greece lined alongside plaster copies of those located in London.

Greece has been luckier in other cases where ownership of ancient Greek artefacts was disputed. A recent, high-profile case was that of Marion True, a former curator at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. She was tried by a Greek court on accusations of conspiring to acquire an ancient gold wreath that Greece claims was looted from its soil.

The claims against True were dismissed at the end of last year, eight months after the wreath was formally returned to Greece.

Though prosecutors asserted that the criminal trials are independent of the efforts to reclaim these objects, in its report of the dismissal The New York Times noted that “the threat of criminal prosecution has emerged as a crucial tool for archaeologically rich countries as they press American museums for the handover of artifacts acquired in recent decades.”

Though the full effect of the proposed law, if enacted, is yet unclear, it may prove to be powerful weapon with which Greece can protect and recover its cultural artefacts.