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Sculptures from the East Pediment of the Parthenon at the British Museum (photo by Yair Haklai/Wikimedia Commons)

Sculptures from the East Pediment of the Parthenon at the British Museum (photo by Yair Haklai/Wikimedia Commons)

The Greek government has decided not to go to court to demand restitution of the Elgin Marbles, which the country has been trying to get back from the British Museum for three decades.

Earlier this year the museum’s director, Richard Lambert, formally rejected UNESCO’s offer to mediate restitution talks, and this month a report prepared by a legal team that included Alma Clooney and British Queen’s Council Geoffrey Robertson suggested that if Greece took its case to the International Court of Justice in the Hague or the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, it would have a 75 to 80% chance of success.

“Both the UK and Greece respect the decisions of the International Court of Justice,” the legal report states. “It is also believed that the International Court of Justice could request aid from the UNESCO General Assembly, which in recent months has shown its support towards Greece’s claim … The legal team claim that the Parthenon sculptures are irrefutably a prime example of Greek identity and a big part of Greek history and culture.”

However, BBC News reports that Nikos Xydakis, Greece’s culture minister, told Mega TV “one cannot [just] go to court over whatever issue,” and that the country will use “diplomatic and political” channels to get the marbles back.

The artworks known as the “Elgin Marbles” account for about half of the surviving sculptures that adorned the exterior of the Parthenon and other buildings on Athens’s Acropolis in 1801 when, with the authorization of the Ottoman emperor who then ruled Greece and was using the site as a military base, workers in the service of Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin began removing them. In 1816, just four years after Elgin’s excavation — which many of his contemporaries viewed with suspicion — was completed, the British state acquired the marbles. Ever since, they have been in the British Museum, which, along with the UK government, has continually declined to acknowledge Greece’s restitution requests.

“The Parthenon sculptures were acquired legally in accordance with the law of the time and the British Museum is the rightful owner,” a Department for Culture, Media, and Sport spokesperson told the Independent.

Much less contentious restitution battles have taken years and millions of dollars, euros, and pounds to resolve in court, so Greece’s decision not to take the legal route to get the Elgin Marbles back seems prudent. It will presumably also make it easier for the country to control public opinion and the historical narrative as it makes its case for repatriation — there’s no better way to antagonize people who have something you want than suing them.

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Benjamin Sutton

Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy...

3 replies on “Greece Won’t Sue to Get the Elgin Marbles Back”

  1. Wise decision.
    Diplomatic channels are slow but more dignified.
    Besides, everybody knows where the marbles are from.
    Not many people acknowledge that they were in danger of being shot at by the Turks, like a huge number of Armenians were.

    1. No way, dude. The Greeks couldn’t protect the marbles when Elgin rescued them (at ruinous expense to himself by the way) and they can’t protect them now.

      The British Museum is a safer bet, although I anticipate some sort of terror attack against antiquities in the West in the near future.

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