The return of the Parthenon Marbles is a sensitive topic that concerns all Greeks around the world. All of us are passionate about bringing them back to Athens, which is the only place where they should be. Many will have thought it a good idea to offer something for their return. However, Greece’s attitude has always been that since the Marbles were illegally acquired, it would be a mistake to give something for what was essentially stolen.
The British Museum claims that Lord Elgin acquired the marbles legally from the Ottomans.
The original document that would “legitimise” the acquisition has not been found. Lord Elgin was only able to produce the English translation of an Italian copy of the “firman” (oriental sovereign’s edict) – the existence and authenticity of which is largely disputed) – that is kept at the British Museum.
Even if this document was authentic and such a firman truly existed, are the occupiers of any place the legitimate owners of the native peoples’ cultural heritage?
In 2016 the Greek government stated that it was considering resorting to international justice for the return of the Parthenon Marbles and that it was investigating how such a claim would be brought against the British Museum, which is arguably the only way anyone should deal with a thief. In this case, the world’s greatest and most successful smuggler, which is the British museum.
In proposing an exchange for the Parthenon Marbles, the current Greek government is treating this issue in a transactional way that would essentially mean that the Greek side admits the acquisition was legal.
This is a huge deviation from the position Greece has maintained over many decades. Greece has not exhausted all means that are available to it through the United Nations and the European Court of Human Rights.
There are several reasons why these official inter-governmental bodies should be used first before trying anything else:
• Firstly, because a criminal (stealing cultural property is of criminal nature) should be held accountable and be taken to justice;
• Secondly, because we should not be looking for the return of the Parthenon Marbles but also a damning judgment/report against the British museum and possibly even claim compensation for the illegal withholding of the marbles; and
• Lastly, because dealing with this issue through the aforementioned international bodies/forums would be the best way to set a precedent that would allow other civilisations to reclaim their cultural treasures and demand their return. We should be leading this fight.
All in all, the Greek government’s passion to have the Parthenon Marbles return is understandable, however the way they are dealing with the issue could harm Greece’s claim in recovering the Marbles. Perhaps if everything else fails, this should be our option of last resort, but at the moment we haven’t used all the other tools that are currently available to us.
♦ Apollonas Karakaidos is the Social and Cultural Officer for the National Union of Greek Australian Students (NUGAS) Victoria.