“It’s time for the case to be closed.” Greece has been demanding for decades the repatriation of the Parthenon marbles from the Acropolis of Athens, exhibited at the British Museum in London, a dispute which could be on the way to being resolved.
“It is not a work of art removed from its place of origin”, but of any “part of an architectural monument symbol of world culture”, declared to AFP Nikos Stampolidis, director of the Acropolis Museum.
“We are talking about the reunification of the Parthenon monument”, one of the most visited vestiges of the 5th century BC in the world, he adds.
The reason for the dispute is a 75-meter-long frieze torn from the Parthenon as well as one of the famous caryatids from the Erechtheion, a small temple in the same acropolis complex, two masterpieces from the collection of the British Museum.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, Greece has officially requested its restitution, without success.
London maintains that the sculptures were “legally acquired” in 1802 by British diplomat Lord Elgin who sold them to the museum. But Athens says they were “looting” since the country was under Ottoman occupation.
“It is time for the case to be closed as soon as possible”, alleges Stampolidis, estimating that “an act of the English Parliament would be enough for the friezes to return to Greece”.
British public opinion is increasingly favourable: 50% of those questioned believe that the marbles brought by Lord Elgin belong to Greece, according to the latest survey by the British institute YouGov, compared to 37% in 2014.
Another important development is the position of the influential British newspaper The Times, fierce defender of the British Museum, which now believes that “times have changed”.
“The sculptures belong to Athens. Now they must return there,” the newspaper wrote in January.
Even the British Museum seems to be softening its stance, according to Greek newspaper Ta Nea.
Asked in February about a possible loan of the pieces to Greece, a spokesperson for the institution indicated that “normally” the borrower recognizes the property of the British Museum, which was previously a “precondition”.
“It is a softening of their position, which indicates a willingness to do the right thing: restore the marbles,” said Mark Stephens, a lawyer specializing in cultural heritage quoted by Ta Nea.
“The only problem” for the International Commission for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles (IARPS) “is that the UK has become very nationalistic when it comes to cultural heritage disputes”.
Greece must decide on its “strategy” but “we encourage it to continue through diplomatic channels”, declared AFP Marlen Goldwin, member of this commission, because “if it goes to court, it will be a kind of war”.
In their fight, the successive Greek authorities have benefited from the support of many personalities such as actor George Clooney, for whom Athens has “the law on its side”.
The loan to the Acropolis Museum of a fragment of the frieze exhibited so far in Sicily is considered “an important step” which “opens the way to other museums”, celebrated Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
“Most importantly, of course, the British Museum needs to understand that it is time for the Parthenon Marbles to return here to their natural home,” he said in January.
The 2009 inauguration of a brand new museum with a panoramic view of the Acropolis, a “marvel” according to its general manager, overturned one of the last arguments in London.
“The British Museum and the UK have been claiming until now that Greece is not capable of maintaining the Marbles and housing them properly. This argument no longer holds,” said the president of the Acropolis Museum , Dimitris Pantermalis.
Here, the friezes “will be in front of the sacred rock, in its environment, and especially under the light of (the peninsula of) Attica” where “the monument was born”, specifies Stampolidis.
Despite turning down the transfer request again a year ago, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he understood “the strength of the feeling of the Greek people”.
The marbles are “our pride, our identity”, “our soul”, assured the late actress and former Minister of Culture Melina Mercouri 35 years ago.
But experts like John Boardman, professor of archeology at Oxford, fear that the return of the marbles to Athens will have “a domino effect on other museums around the world”.
“Let’s be clear,” says Stampolidis. “We are asking for the reunification of the Parthenon friezes but not of all the objects from ancient Greece that are displayed in museums around the world.”