Rachel Sanderson, a former South Australian member of parliament, opined on the return of the Parthenon Sculptures in Bloomberg yesterday.

Sanderson uses Pope Francis as an example, who last month returned to Greece the fragments from the Parthenon held by the Vatican Museums for 100 years.

“It’s high time Britain followed the Argentine pontiff’s example. Next year, when Greece marks the 50th anniversary of the return of democratic rule, presents an ideal opportunity.”

“In other words, Pope Francis added his weight to the view of the Greek Orthodox Church, also widely held by Greek people, that the Parthenon marbles, which date to the 5th century BC, need to be back in Greece.”

Elgin’s brazen theft

Thomas Bruce, the Seventh Earl of Elgin, landed in Constantinople (Istanbul) in November 1799 on the guise that he would document Greek art. Elgin’s ‘artistic’ team led an enormous campaign to hack the artworks from the temples on the Acropolis and transport them to Britain.

Elgin’s theft was carried out with the complicity of the occupying Ottoman colonial empire which ruled Greece for 400 years. It resulted in the brazen plundering of over fifty percent of the sculptures from the Athenian citadel, hacking off the Parthenon of its priceless art, including one of its six robed maidens, or caryatids. The stolen loot also consisted of significant portions of the Parthenon frieze – a sequence of relief sculptures depicting a procession of chariots, animals, and human figures.

After suffering in the Scottish lord’s estate, in Britain’s harsh weather, when broke, he sold off the booty to the British Museum, where they have remained ever since.

Calls for the reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures over the past 40 years, have led the charge for other stolen heritages to return to their rightful places. More recently, the movement to reclaim looted cultural treasures has gained momentum, with advocates amplifying the call for cultural justice.

Britain’s stubborn position

Sanderson notes that Laurence des Cars, director of the Louvre, is part of a new wave of officials who are open to the repatriation of artworks when they have been wrongfully held elsewhere, the Vatican Museums reportedly view the return of the Parthenon Marbles as an isolated event unrelated to their collection.

Sanderson cites Andrea Rurale, a Lecturer at the Department of Marketing at Università Bocconi, Milan, who says that “it helped that Francis had the power to make this unilateral decision, which enabled him to bypass the objections of those who disagreed in the Vatican Museums.”

“On the other hand, the British ownership of the Parthenon marbles – [also] known as the Elgin marbles, as Lord Elgin oversaw their removal in 1801 – is based on endless debate and divergent opinions from countless involved parties.”

Sanderson’s call for the British to return the Parthenon Marbles is a timely intrusion given tomorrow is the coronation of Charles III and his wife, Camilla, as king and queen of the United Kingdom and the other Commonwealth realms. And we are still, a Commonwealth realm, even our prime minister Anthony Albanese will pledge his allegiance to the king.

Timely intrusion ahead of King Charles coronation

As a republican I don’t mind Charles, however it could be nice and wise for King Charles to add his imprimatur to the cause of the return of the Parthenon Sculptures. He advocates for the environment openly and has done so for years. Why not the Parthenon Sculptures? Why not all heritage booty from Pax Britannia’s colonial jurisdictions?

Sections of a Greek temple that form part of the Parthenon sculptures, sometimes referred to in the UK as the Elgin Marbles, on display at the British Museum in London, Britain, January 25, 2023. REUTERS/Toby Melville

At least those things can go back. To be fair, sending back King Mausolus’ impressive mausoleum, (that’s where mausoleums got their name) in the British Museum could be tricky. Mausolus ruled over ancient Caria (377–353 BCE) now modern Turkey. There’s hardly any Greeks where Caria was in modern Turkey. Most of the indigenous Greeks, 1.2 million, were killed, or ‘cleansed out’ of Turkey in 1922.

King Charles can add his weight, to the issue, he can’t make rules; the last king that tried to impose his will on parliament, Charles I, lost his head.

A public comment, and chat to the British PM may ease the process. He may also add to his support from the British public and add some relevance to the institution he heads.

An issue largely ignored in Australian media

A comment Charles may also motivate our own Australian media to cover the Parthenon Sculptures. Bloomberg, The Guardian, Washington Post, New York Times, Le Monde, DW, BBC and many, many, more, have dedicated coverage to the Parthenon Sculptures throughout 2022 and 2023.

Our own ABC’s token gesture to the issue was in Marc Fennell’s podcast, “Stuff the British Stole.” Fennel knew not of the issue until I informed him and that there was a blatant absence of the most globally important repatriation issue in the eponymous ABC television program.

Why would the ABC bother itself with the theft of Ancient Greek heritage? It’s not like Greeks had any measurable impact on politics, art, theatre, music, history, architecture, medicine, and science, and given we’re hardly ‘white’, and not ‘of colour’ enough – we don’t fit in the hive mind of the ABC.

For that matter, none – from what I can tell – of the other Australian media bar The Conversation have mentioned the Parthenon Sculptures. Given it is ‘our’ ABC and some tax receipts from the Greeks in Australia go to Aunty, you’d expect better.

In the end, King Carolos can say the right thing, given as our king he can’t do much.