The debate on whether the British Museum should return the Elgin Marbles to Greece has attracted new focus now the iconic antiques could become a Brexit bargaining-chip says Aurea Kevill.
The Parthenon Marbles (also known as the Elgin Marbles) were removed from the Parthenon in Greece by the seventh Earl of Elgin, between 1801 and 1805. In 1816, they were purchased by the British Museum, following parliamentary approval.
Two hundred years on, the dispute over the Elgin Marbles’ rightful ownership continues. It is believed by some that their ‘appropriation’ was inappropriate, Liberal Democrat MP Mark Williams has criticised his predecessors saying that in 1816 Parliament ‘effectively state-sanctioned the improper acquisition’ of the Elgin Marbles, and that they should rightfully be returned to Greece.
In an attempt to put right what has been described as a 200 year old wrong, a Private Members’ Bill was introduced on 11 July 2016 by Mr Williams, which has cross party support. The Bill proposes amendments to the British Museum Act 1963, which prevents disposals of objects in the Museum’s collection. It recommends that the Act should be amended to make an exception for the Elgin Marbles, but provides that before any transfer of the Elgin Marbles, there must be an agreement in place between the Greek and UK governments which addresses, among other things, transportation and the future access to them.
In 2015, Andrew George, a Liberal Democrat MP who lost his seat that year, also presented a motion to Parliament to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece. Support for the return of the iconic antiquities has increased following the recent vote for Brexit and many suggest that the timing of the most recent Bill is an attempt to secure a better exit deal with the EU.
Mr George stated that it would be in Britain’s interest to demonstrate that leaving the EU ‘doesn’t involve us becoming inward-looking and xenophobic towards the EU, but more confident, more able to be gracious’. He believes that doing, what he considers, as ‘the right thing by the Greeks’ will help Britain to demonstrate that ‘generosity and graciousness’ and thereby help us negotiate a more favourable trade deal with the EU.
However, many believe that returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece would set a dangerous precedent and would put the fate of many artefacts in doubt. Would the British Museum’s return of the Elgin Marbles result in demands that museums all over the world send religious relics, Egyptian antiquities, Chinese ceramics and Roman sculptures back to their country of origin? In the Louvre, many of the works of art were appropriated by Napoleon – should they be returned too?
The British Museum argues that the Elgin Marbles are ‘part of the world’s shared heritage and transcend political boundaries’. It is resolute that the Elgin Marbles should remain in London, just as I am sure the Louvre would be in relation to its collection.
The ultimate decision on whether the Elgin Marbles will return lies with the secretary of state for culture: Karen Bradley. That decision will require the weighing up of different arguments for and against the return of these precious artefacts. Do the Elgin Marbles rightfully belong in Greece or in the British Museum? Would their return open the flood gates? Should they be returned to help show Britain in a more generous light ahead of negotiations to leave the EU? There are arguments on both sides, and the decision is not going to be an easy one.
Aurea Kevill works at boutique private wealth law firm Maurice Turnor Gardner LLP