Greece reported to be seeking International Justice for the Parthenon

The Ilissos sculpture, on display in London, originally adorned the Parthenon
The Ilissos sculpture, on display in London, originally adorned the Parthenon

With 2016 marking the 200th anniversary of the acquisition of the Parthenon sculptures by Parliament from Lord Elgin, there will likely be a lot of attention paid to the long-running dispute. The Guardian reported yesterday on a legal summary authored by Geoffrey Robertson, Norman Palmer, and Amal Clooney. The possibility of bringing a claim before the ICJ, raising public support, and continuing to generate goodwill towards reunification of the monument in Athens are the major themes of the 141 page summary, available via the Guardian. But the major focus of the claim now seems to be a call for justice for the sculptures, an argument I’ve made as well building on the well-established principle of environmental justice.

The reporting by Helena Smith focuses on the work by advocates in Athens:

As campaigners prepare to mark the 200th anniversary of the antiquities’ “captivity” in London, Athens is working at forging alliances that would further empower its longstanding battle to retrieve the sculptures.

“We are trying to develop alliances which we hope would eventually lead to an international body like the United Nations to come with us against the British Museum,” the country’s culture minister, Aristides Baltas, revealed in an interview.

“If the UN represents all nations of the world and all nations of the world say ‘the marbles should be returned’ then we’ll go to court because the British Museum would be against humanity,” he said. “We do not regard the Parthenon as exclusively Greek but rather as a heritage of humanity.”

But the politician admitted there was always the risk of courts issuing a negative verdict that would wreck Athens’ chances of having the artworks reunited with the magnificent monument they once adorned.

“Courts do not by definition regard [any] issue at the level of history or morality or humanity-at-large. They look at the laws,” said Baltas, an academic and philosopher who played a pivotal role in founding Syriza, Greece’s governing leftist party. “As there are no hard and fast rules regarding the issue of returning treasures taken away from various countries, there is no indisputable legal basis.”

Helena Smith, Greece Looks to International Justice to Regain Parthenon Marbles from UK, The Guardian, May 8, 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/may/08/greece-international-justice-regain-parthenon-marbles-uk.
Derek Fincham, The Parthenon Sculptures and Cultural Justice, 23 Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal 943 (2013).
Christopher Hitchens, A Home for the Marbles, The New York Times, Jun. 19, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/19/opinion/19iht-edhitchens.html.
Michael Kimmelman, Elgin Marble Argument in a New Light, The New York Times, Jun. 24, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/24/arts/design/24abroad.html.
John Henry Merryman, Whither the Elgin Marbles, in Imperialism, art and restitution 98 (Cambridge Univ Pr 2006).
David Rudenstine, Lord Elgin and the Ottomans: The Question of Permission, 23 Cardozo L. Rev. 449 (2001).

Best of luck to teams competing at the Cultural Heritage Moot Court Competition

Alexander Calder's 'Flamingo'
Alexander Calder’s ‘Flamingo’

Best of luck to the teams competing this weekend at the national cultural heritage moot court competition in Chicago. The competition is run by DePaul’s moot court society and the Lawyer’s Committee for Cultural Heritage Competition.

Given that 2016 marks the 200th anniversary of Parliament’s decision to purchase the sculptures from Lord Elgin, it is apt that this years problems deals with two issues over whether a U.S. Court would have jurisdiction and should hear a suit between the British Museum and the Acropolis Museum.

Co-sponsored by the Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation, the National Cultural Heritage Law ​Moot Court Competition is the only moot court competition in the world that focuses exclusively on cultural heritage law issues. The Competition provides students with the opportunity to advocate in the nuanced landscape of cultural heritage, which addresses our past and our identity, and which has frequently become the subject of contentious legal debates and policies. This dynamic and growing legal field deals with the issues that arise as our society comes to appreciate the important symbolic, historical and emotional role that cultural heritage plays in our lives. It encompasses several disparate areas: protection of archaeological sites; preservation of historic structures and the built environment; preservation of and respect for both tangible and intangible indigenous cultural heritage; the international market in art works and antiquities; and recovery of stolen art works.

Art and Antiquities Crime Up 30% in Greece

“We have now come back, hiring just security personnel to man museums and archaeological sites. Well, doesn’t that prove our genuine conviction to safeguarding our cultural heritage?” 


So says Lina Mendoni, secretary general of the Greek Culture Ministry in response to questions that the Greeks aren’t paying enough to safeguard its sites. 


As protests continue to unfold in Greece, one report looks back at the theft of art from the Greek National Gallery in Athens. Anthee Carassava, reporting from Athens for the L.A. Times can’t help but to add a few glamorizing details to the theft. One of the thieves is a “virtuoso lock picker”. The thieves manipulated the security system and eluded the one guard on duty and stole works by Picasso (pictured here), Mondrian, and a sketch by Guglielmo Caccia. I’m always skeptical of reporting in one nation’s papers pointing fingers at the ineptness of another nation’s efforts to protect its heritage. This problem plagues loads of international reporting in places like Italy and also Greece. And even if we take the United States or United Kingdom, theft and looting takes place, and there aren’t enough security guards to police remote sites and small institutions, which results in the theft of objects. Market safeguards are unreliable, and the law enforcement framework all over the world is still developing. So when funding pressures and unrest take hold, there can be dire consequences for cultural security.

The theme of the report here ties the theft in this case to the wider theme of Greek austerity, and unrest.

Greece’s economic crisis has left the Culture Ministry desperately short of cash, resulting in a near-shutdown of scores of museums, dwindling archaeological work in various parts of the country and, in some cases, severe cutbacks in security. At the National Gallery, the curator acknowledged that although the safety of its collection “is not in peril,” budget cuts have scaled back security personnel by about 50% since 2010, leaving the country’s biggest storehouse of fine art with just 19 of the 37 guards it employed before the fiscal crisis.

. . .

Greece has never been a generous investor in culture. Even in the 1990s heyday of spendthrift policies, Athens allocated just 0.7% of the national budget for the promotion and preservation of Greece’s cultural inheritance. Now nearly bankrupt, the state has halved that figure to 0.35%, allotting 42% of that — about $173 million — to the operation and security of museums, monuments, monasteries and archaeological sites, according to the 2012 budget. Government officials are emphatic, however, that the financial crisis is not taking a toll on the safety of Greece’s fine art and antiquities.

. . .

About 1,900 government-paid guards protect more than 15,000 museums, monuments and archaeological sites across the country. Of these, 1,350 are full-time staff members; the rest are either contract employees hired during the peak tourist season or civil servants relocated from state corporations that the government shut down last year in a bid to slash public spending. “What am I supposed to do with a 63-year-old mechanic or bus driver who is clueless about antiquity and is just interested in clocking time until retirement?” asked Giorgos Dimakakos, the head guard at the Acropolis, Greece’s landmark monument. In recent months, Culture Ministry guards have heightened demands for permanent employment and an exemption from further austerity cuts, saying the government’s Band-Aid solutions to personnel shortages pose grave security and liability risks. With poverty levels rising and more than 100,000 businesses shuttered or close to bankruptcy, art and antiquities thefts are up by at least 30% in the last year, said Kouzilos of the special police unit. It’s hardly a surprise, then, to see a dramatic increase in small-time hoods and first-time crooks trying to join the ranks of seasoned art thieves.

I’d be interested in hearing how this security compares with even the ‘model’ in the rest of Europe or North America. I also wonder if it might be time to prepare a ‘red list’ of objects from Greece that the art market should report and flag.

  1. Anthee Carassava, Art heist robs Greece of a sense of security – latimes.com, L.A. Times, February 11, 2012, http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-greece-antiquities-20120212,0,3742515.story (last visited Feb 15, 2012).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Update on the Athens Theft

This Picasso was given to Greece in 1949, because the Greeks resisted the Nazis
The Ink Drawing by Caccia 

No recovery or arrests yet, but there has been a little new information to shed light on the recent theft from the Athens’ National Gallery. Police have said that one man entered the National Gallery through a small balcony door, after he had deliberately and repeatedly set off alarms the night before, which led to a guard disabling one of the alarms. There has been speculation that Greek austerity and budget cuts contributed to the theft, which seems overblown and a bit unfair to the Greeks. Whenever a security breach or theft takes place, the museum looks bad. And whether budget cuts and poorly paid security played a role remains to be seen.

Greek authorities have said that the theft was probably done to benefit a private collector. That seems at this point to be speculation, and is an attractive, if unlikely motive for the theft. There just aren’t that many real-life versions of Dr. Julius No.

But there is a good idea about what uses these stolen works may be put to:

A 20th Century landscape by Piet Mondrian

 Dick Ellis, director of Art Management Group in England, who set up the art theft division for Scotland Yard more than 20 years ago, said there’s a good chance they will be recovered and, if not, used as collateral to fund other criminal enterprises. “Government indemnity doesn’t cover theft. They [thieves] are looking for a ransom route that is not going to be forthcoming. We’ll have to see the caliber of the criminal,” he told SETimes. “It’s obviously an important Picasso, and it adds to its prominence that it was given by the artist himself,” said Ellis, who recovered in Serbia two Picassos stolen from a Swiss museum five years ago. 

When a theft like this takes place, security is front and center, and the Greeks are noting that security was robust at the museum:

Niki Katsantonis, a spokeswoman for the culture ministry, told SETimes that “The National Gallery, as well as all the other museums and archaeological sites, are equipped with modern security systems,” and pointed out that there have been thefts at many other museums around the world. She said the gallery will build a 46.5m-euro extension this year with EU funds, an addition that “won’t just improve the grounds, but it will fortify them as well”. Police spokesman Athanassios Kokkalakis said, “These were no amateurs. Their moves and operation together were very well calculated. With the publicity this heist has received, it’s unlikely these works will ever make their way into the black market.” 

 Robert Wittman noted, “You can’t judge art only on the dollar value, but what it means to civilisation. Your biggest agony is if it is destroyed or damaged. . . . About 99.99% of the time they are not stolen to order, but on the ability of the thieves to go in and get them. Most of the time they will take what’s easy to get and carry. . . . If they get caught in an armed robbery or something else, they can use it to negotiate.”

  1. Andy Dabilis, Greek investigators search for missing masterpiece, January 13, 2012, http://setimes.com/cocoon/setimes/xhtml/en_GB/features/setimes/features/2012/01/13/feature-03 (last visited Jan 18, 2012).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Art Theft from the Athens National Gallery

This Picasso was given to Greece in 1949, because the Greeks resisted the Nazis
The Ink Drawing by Caccia 

A 20th Century landscape by Piet Mondrian

Shortly before 5 am this morning in Athens thieves broke into the back of the gallery, forced open a balcony door and stole a painting by Picasso, and Mondirian painting, and a sketch by Guglielmo Caccia. The works were stripped from their frames, and might have been damaged. The museum guard heard an alarm, and saw a person running from the building. The thief dropped a painting, a landscape by Mondrian as he escaped. The thieves had distracted the guards all night by perhaps triggering alarms from outside the building, which prompted the guards to disable at least one of the alarms. Police say the theft took only seven minutes.

  1. Picasso stolen from Greek gallery, BBC, January 9, 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-16470459 (last visited Jan 9, 2012).
  2. Associated Press, Art thieves rob Picasso from Athens museum, http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-202_162-57355197/art-thieves-rob-picasso-from-athens-museum/ (last visited Jan 9, 2012).
  3. Picasso and Mondrian paintings stolen from Greece’s biggest state art museum, The Telegraph, January 9, 2012, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-news/9002976/Picasso-and-Mondrian-paintings-stolen-from-Greeces-biggest-state-art-museum.html (last visited Jan 9, 2012).
  4. Greek national gallery robbed of Picasso, Mondrian, CBC, http://www.cbc.ca/news/arts/story/2012/01/09/greece-art-theft-picasso-mondrian.html (last visited Jan 9, 2012).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com