Campaigners for the reunification for the Parthenon sculptures say they’ll consider suing the British government to force the marbles’ return to Athens.
The strategy was floated by Greek American litigation lawyer Michael Reppas at the International Colloquy on the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, held at the Hellenic Centre in London this week.
Mr Reppas, who heads up the American Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures, said litigation should play a role in the restitution campaign.
“Litigation obviously has the ultimate goal of resolving conflicts. There is a definite resolution, there is a verdict,” he said.
“A successful litigation obviously results in this particular case, in those sculptures being returned.”
He said a number of legalities around possession of the sculptures could be challenged in court, including the British Museum Act of 1963.
“In my opinion, litigation is an essential component of the campaign and should be more than just a threat,” Mr Reppas said.
Timed to coincide with the third anniversary of the opening of the Acropolis Museum in Athens and the lead-up to the London Olympic Games, the conference was the first of its kind and brought together reunification committees from Australia, South Africa, America and the United Kingdom.
Prominent South African lawyer George Bizos, who famously acted as legal counsel to Nelson Mandela, said there was a growing wave of international support for the restitution of the marbles.
“There is a EUNESCO resolution about properties of this nature. The United Nations is likely to intervene. The International Court in The Hague will sooner or later have to make a decision as to whether the protocols should really be made applicable for the return of the artefacts and the works of art.
“It may take time but I think that the people that claim these tremendous symbols of their civilization will eventually prevail,” Mr Bizos said.
Despite the strength of the legal case, Mr Bizos said campaigners would rather achieve a negotiated outcome with the British Museum.
“A legal case can be made out but we’d rather have a friendly negotiation to achieve the same result,” he said.
The Australian Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles was represented by Emanuel Comino, who delivered an impassioned address.
“There were tears in my eyes and I was ready to march down the streets of London with a placard,” one conference attendee said, following Mr Comino’s presentation.
Held across two days, the conference included a visit to the British Museum on Wednesday, where a visual campaign was launched in the forecourt.
Organisers say they do not expect restitution to be achieved quickly, but are buoyed by the recent swell in public support, prompted by the attention that has been drawn to the issue by advocates including Stephen Fry.
The high-profile actor has called for the marbles to be restored to Athens, saying it would be a “classy” thing to do, and an act of “grace and decency”.
His view was supported by a vote following a televised debate held at London’s Cadogan Hall, where audience members voted 384 to 125 in favour of restitution.
Despite this swing, the British Museum remains adamant that the sculptures will stay put.
“In Athens they can be part of a Greek story and in London they can be part of a world story,” Museum Director Neil MacGregor said last year.
The Parthenon marbles were taken from Ottoman-ruled Greece by Lord Elgin in 1802, while he was British Ambassador to Constantinople.
The collection, which totals about half the Parthenon’s frieze, fifteen metopes, seventeen pedimental fragments, as well as a Caryatid and a column from the Erechtheion, has been on display in the British Museum since 1816.
Restitution campaigners say they’ll continue to hold an international conference each year until the Parthenon marbles are returned to Greece.
George Bizos said he’s confident they’ll eventually prevail.
“I have no doubt. I’m an old man, it may not be in my lifetime but world opinion is being directed to that end.”