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.”
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.
An Athenian cultural association has brought a claim before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg seeking the return of the Parthenon Sculptures held by the British Museum. This year marks the 200th anniversary of Parliament’s decision to purchase sculptures stripped from the Parthenon from Lord Elgin. At present most of the surviving sculptures rest in London at the British Museum.
cultural identity as an aspect of «the right to respect for private life» (Article 8 of ECHR);
cultural identity as an aspect of «the freedom of conscience» (Article 9 of ECHR);
the right to access cultural information, as an aspect of «the freedom of expression» (Article 10 of ECHR);
the «right to an effective remedy» (Article 13 of ECHR); and
the right to property, in the sense of integral public access to the monument (Article 1 of the Additional Protocol to ECHR).
The Athenians’ Association, which has existed since 1895, argues in a statement that it hopes to “raise international public awareness and to have justice rendered” and “hopes that the truth will prevail, that the monument will be restored and that history and tradition will shine forth for the good of mankind”.
I’ve laid out my argument as well, that cultural justice demands the reunification of this work of art.
For the first time since the sculptures were removed from the Parthenon under the orders of Lord Elgin some 200 years ago, the British Museum has announced it is loaning a Parthenon sculpture. Specifically the Ilissos statue to the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. This very short loan, which will last only until January 18th has caused a great deal of outrage and criticism amongst those who think the sculptures should be ultimately reunited in Athens.
Greeks in particularly have been angered, with the Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras calling the loan a provocation: “The Parthenon and its sculptures were pillaged. We greeks identify with our history and culture. They cannot be torn apart, loaned, and ceded.”
And there is I think part of the problem for the Greeks. They have made compromise exceedingly difficult. I have argued before that justice requires the sculptures be reunited in Athens. But ownership and property law has limits that cannot resolve this dispute. So much time has passed between Elgin’s actions, and the actions of Ottoman officials, that definitively litigating those actions is difficult. Rather that criticizing this loan, perhaps Greeks, and those who think the sculptures belong in Athens should see this as a loosening of the British Museums’s grips on these sculptures, and may be a precedent upon which future loans could ultimately achieve the return of these objects to Athens, if not permanently, then at least on a temporary basis.
The Guardian reported over the weekend that Turkey plans to petition the European Court of Human Rights for the return of sculptures from the mausoleum of Helicarnassus, currently held by the British Museum. Norman Palmer is quoted in the piece, “I have not heard of it [human rights] being used to raise a claim for the specific restitution of particular tangible objects … This would be a novel claim.” That strikes me as exactly right, I’ don’t see a direct human right to specific cultural objects. And my initial reaction is skeptical of attempting to use a rights-based approach for repatriation. One difficulty that this principle will have is in application. How would a court decide what should be repatriated and what should not. Are all objects from a region tied to that people’s human rights? And is this right only related to the original situs of the object. Could Londoners argue that they have a corresponding human right in some of the objects in the British Museum which is created because of the display and care of the objects. Lots of interesting questions, and this will be a legal challenge to follow closely. The Guardian makes sure to note that Turkey has had its own human rights record challenged by the Strasbourg court.
The mausoleum sculptures were first removed from what is now modern Turkey in 1846 by the British ambassador to Constantinople and others were taken in subsequent excavations by archaeologist Charles Thomas Newton.
The piece also notes that the mere act of announcing a challenge will raise questions about the British Museum’s ownership of the sculptures, and will of course cause similar questions to be asked of other bits and pieces of the ancient 7 wonders which are currently held by the British Museum.
The Art Newspaper reports that Turkey has refused to lend objects to museums in the US and UK until issues over disputed objects are resolved.
The British Museum had asked for 35 items for the exhibition “Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam” (until 15 April). Although Turkish museums were agreeable to the loans, the ministry of culture blocked them, leaving the British Museum to find alternative artefacts at short notice. As part of the growing Turkish campaign, loans have been blocked to museums with disputed objects in their collections. The Met has confirmed that a dozen antiquities are now being claimed by Turkey, but would not identify the individual items. A museum spokeswoman says: “The matter is under discussion with the Turkish authorities.” This month, the Met is due to open “Byzantium and Islam” (14 March-8 July). Many loans are coming from the Benaki Museum in Athens, with none requested of Turkish museums.
Martin Bailey, Turkey blocks loans to US and UK, The Art Newspaper, March 1, 2012, http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Turkey-blocks-loans-to-US-and-UK/25869 (last visited Mar 1, 2012).
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Michael Kimmelman has a piece discussing the Parthenon sculptures and how it has influenced other repatriation debates. He seems to favor a cosmopolitan approach, and borrows a good deal from James Cuno without mentioning him by name. After all the mention of Cuno in some circles often shuts off any reasoned discourse. And though he seems to be frustrated with his conclusion—that the Parthenon sculptures taken by Elgin should remain in London—he manages to make some thoughtful observations. His best argument may be comparing the Euphronios Krater to the Parthenon sculptures:
And in the end patrimony is about ownership, often of objects that as in the marbles’ case, come from bygone civilizations. What, in this context, does it really mean to own culture?
Italy recently celebrated the return of a national treasure after the Metropolitan Museum gave back a sixth-century B.C. Greek krater by the painter Euphronius that tomb robbers dug up outside Rome during the 1970s. Stolen property is stolen property. But how curious that an ancient Greek vase, which centuries after it was made came into the possession of an Etruscan collector (a kind of ancient Elgin) living on what is now the outskirts of Rome, and then ended up buried for thousands of years below what became modern Italy, is today Italian cultural patrimony. By that definition, Elgin’s loot is arguably British patrimony.