In the 1800s, a British aristocrat, Lord Elgin, returned from Greece. He brought with him some of the greatest treasures of antiquity, the Parthenon marbles. This collection included carved panels that had once decorated the Parthenon and statues of Greek Gods.
The Ottoman Empire sold the Parthenon marbles to the British government; the Ottomans ruled Greece then. Some of them were taken from the temple walls. Since their removal, the ownership of the marbles has been bitterly contested. The British claim the marbles were legally acquired, while the Greeks see them as looted treasures that should be returned.
In recent years, the actions of old empires have come under scrutiny. Ownership of looted artifacts has been debated greatly, and restitution battles have challenged western museums.
The British Museum is now in talks with Greece about a possible resolution.
However, they remain far apart on some critical questions.
Talks have been going on in London since November 2021 between the prime minister of Greece and the chair of the British Museum. The two parties have been trying to reach a deal on the future of the marbles.
The success of the negotiations is a matter of speculation. Greek newspapers have claimed that the talks are 90 % complete.
Bloomberg reported that the two parties were "closing in" on a deal, and other encouraging accounts have followed elsewhere. Under the discussed proposition, the Bloomberg article stated some of the artifacts would return to Athens temporarily in exchange for other ancient treasures.
However, a deal still remains much further away than reports indicate, say two people with facts of the negotiations according to the New York Times. Recently, officials from both sides have spoken publicly to put the brakes on the soaring expectations that any deal was close.
Greece asked the British Museum to return the friezes in its collection. Including the carved stone that was wrapped around the Parthenon. Greece wants an agreement that the panels will stay in Greece for a minimum of 20 years. There, they would be reunited with other pieces of the frieze already on show in the Acropolis Museum in Athens. They hope for an extension after the agreed 20 years.
Greek officials hope to negotiate the return of the remaining sculptures at a later date. In return, Greece would supply the British Museum with a selection of artifacts on loan in rotation.
The British Museum wants a different agreement that suggests returning a smaller amount of the frieze, along with carvings of gods and centaurs, as a short-term loan to Greece. The British Museum would offer up to one-third of the Parthenon artifacts in its collection.
Once Greece returns those artifacts to London, more would be sent over to Athens in replacement. In time, the number of artifacts sent to Greece would increase, reflecting growing trust between the two sides.
The British Museum's argument is that it cannot offer more, even if it wanted to. Under British law, the Museum can only remove objects that are deemed unfit to be retained, although it is able to provide artifacts to other institutions on loan.
The British Museum argues that Lord Elgin obtained the artifacts legally from the Ottoman Empire. It insists that the sculptures are best displayed amongst the Museum's global collections so that they show part of a broader story about human civilization.
Any agreement with the Greek government must include a provision that the marbles return to London; otherwise, it could be challenged in court.
The British Museum has not commented on the negotiations. However, a museum spokesperson acknowledged they were in place.
They are said to be actively seeking n new Parthenon partnership with Greece, and constructive discussions are ongoing.
Other large Western collections, including the Smithsonian Institution, have recently returned high-profile contested artworks, and the British Museum looks increasingly out of line. Along the Parthenon artifacts, the Museum holds a large collection of Benin Bronzes, claimed by Nigeria; the Rosetta Stone, which some archaeologists want to be brought back to Egypt; and also a statue from Easter Island that the island's Indigenous people, the Rapa Nui, have requested.
Museum administrators and legal experts worldwide are closely observing the situation.
"If there was some kind of deal, it would be a great symbol for others seeking restitution claims," said Alexander Herman, director of the Institute of Art and Law in London.
Max Hollein, current director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, said, "the question of the Elgin Marbles is a long and complex story; any solution "would be a large step for the institutions and for the cultural dialogue in the world."
Recently The Met reached a deal with Greece so that the New York museum could display a collection of Cycladic antiquities assembled by philanthropist Leonard N Stern while acknowledging that the artifacts belong to the Greek state. Under the deal, artifacts will travel between Greece and the US. Hollein said Greece's government is open to negotiating innovative solutions which restore ownership of the country's cultural heritage while allowing items to be displayed internationally.
Recently, at the British Museum, the marbles display was filled with tourists snapping selfies in front of the statues and the frieze.
Leon, a six-year-old artist in London, said he was excited to see the marbles in The British Museum, but they should still go back to Greece. Hillary, 41, an art teacher, said, "I am grateful to be able to see these in person, but they should still be returned as they are part of Greece's history. "
Public opinion now seems to be in favor of the artifacts returning to Greece.
The information in this article is courtesy of the New York Times.