September 26, 2008

Recognising the illegality of looted artefacts

Posted at 9:49 am in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

Kwame Opoku writes on the return of the Palermo Fragment from the Parthenon frieze earlier this week & how the British attitude differs from the that of the Italians.

Modern Ghana

By Kwame Opoku, Dr.
Feature Article | Fri, 26 Sep 2008

Italy has returned to Greece, a piece of the Parthenon, “Palermo fragment” which has been missing from Athens for 200 years. The fragment showing the right foot of the Greek hunting goddess Artemis and part of her robe had been in the collection of the Antonio Salinas Archaeological Museum, Palermo, Italy. (1)

How did this fragment from the Parthenon end in Palermo? It was part of the marbles removed by the infamous Lord Elgin, then British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire which was occupying Greece. Elgin gave the fragment as gift to the British Consul-General of Sicily in 1816 and took the bulk of the sculptures to London where they are now in the British Museum. Greece has been demanding their return ever since then but to no avail. (2)

Italy seems to be following a consistent moral policy as far as restitution of cultural objects is concerned. After having returned the Axum Obelisk to Ethiopia and restored the Venus of Cyrene to Libya, it has now returned a Parthenon Fragment to Greece.

The question which everyone must be asking is whether the British will also follow the Italian example and return the Parthenon / Elgin Marbles to Greece? What will be the effect of the Italian gesture on the British position and attitude? It must be said immediately that in this matter, the British Government and the British Museum do not appear to represent the British people. In many public opinion polls, the large majority of the British people have supported the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens. The vast majority of British intellectuals and academics are in favour of restitution. Debates in Oxford and Cambridge have always been in favour of restitution.

It can be said without fear of contradiction that the British, judging by past history will not be moved by this latest Italian action. They will act as if it did not concern them. But in the long run, everybody will be asking whether the position of the British is acceptable to the large majority of States that have overwhelmingly in the United Nations and in UNESCO, in several resolutions, called for the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens. We have come to the conclusion that in matters of restitution, the British Government and the British Museum do not pay any attention to morality, law and the resolutions of the United Nations and UNESCO.

If the British will not even recognize the illegality of Nazi stolen objects and order restitution, it is not very likely that they will recognize the unlawful nature of the alleged acquisition of the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles by Lord Elgin. The British are the first to point out that all these cases of restitution must be considered separately, case by case. But the moment one argues or pleads for restitution in one case, there comes immediately the response that if we give in here, we must give in there. So restitution of the Benin bronzes is linked to the restitution of the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles. The restitution of Nazi stolen artworks is linked to the restitution of the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles. One simply cannot win against a side that not only keeps shifting arguments but can also comfortably operate with contradictory arguments.

The exhibition includes the “Nostoi Capolavori Ritrovati” exhibition which was organised by the Presidency of the Italian Republic and was initially presented in Rome, Palazzo del Quirinale, December 2, 2007 – March 30, 2008. The exhibition consists mainly of. artefacts of Greek and Roman origin that were found on Italian soil but were subsequently illegally sent abroad. With threats of legal actions and other pressures, the American museums, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles returned the artefacts to Italy. Certain artefacts recently returned to Greece by private collections and individuals are also included. Two more Parthenon fragments held by the Vatican will be returned to Greece on October 8, 2008. The present movement for restitution can be said to derive its impulse mainly from the Italian actions against the reluctant American museums.

At the official inauguration of the “Nostoi” exhibition at the new Acropolis Museum in Athens by President Karolos Papoulias and the Italian President Giorgio Napolitano on Wednesday September 24, 2008, the Greek President expressed the hope that the return of the Parthenon fragment will signal the start of a healing process to the injury done to this monument by the removal of the Parthenon Marbles. He also emphasized that Greece and Italy believe that the return of looted antiquities to their place of origin is possible, no matter how difficult. Will the British hear these words or will they fall on deaf ears as usual?

Kwame Opoku, 28 September, 2008


1) “Italy has returned to Greece the “Palermo fragment”
“Italy returns long lost Parthenon fragment to Greece’,

2) See, Christopher Hitchins, The Parthenon Marbles, Verso, London, 2008;
The British Committee for the Return of the Parthenon Marbles
Marbles Reunited

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