British Museum vows to fight off any attempt by the EU to take back the Elgin Marbles as it says they were acquired ‘completely legally’
- EU negotiating mandate suggests there could be a demand for Elgin Marbles
- The bloc will seek ‘return or restitution of unlawfully removed cultural objects’
- But British Museum chief said Elgin Marbles were acquired ‘completely legally’
Hartwig Fischer, the director of the British Museum
The British Museum has vowed to fight off any attempt by the EU to take back the Elgin Marbles during Brexit talks as it said they were acquired ‘completely legally’.
Yesterday it emerged the bloc’s negotiating mandate for Brexit trade talks had been extended to include a demand to ‘address issues relating to the return or restitution of unlawfully removed cultural objects to their countries of origin’.
The ask was widely believed to have been added at the request of Greece, Italy and Cyprus – and indicates that Brussels intends to play hardball.
Greek diplomats told Bloomberg the clause on ‘cultural objects’ was to do with smuggling of artefacts.
But another official suggested it was a reference to the ancient Greek statues in the British Museum, which were taken from the Parthenon in Athens at the start of the 19th century.
Number 10 immediately hit back at the suggestion with a source saying giving back the statues was ‘just not happening’.
Hartwig Fischer, the director of the British Museum, today insisted that its ownership of the Elgin Marbles was ‘completely legal’.
He also insisted in an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that it was ‘not a burglaries case’ as he sought to dampen any claims on the items.
The Elgin Marbles are a collection of classical Greek marble sculptures, inscriptions and architectural members that were mostly created by Phidias and his assistants
He said: ‘The Elgin Marbles are part of the Parthenon sculptures which were brought to the UK by Lord Elgin with the explicit permission of the Ottoman empire, the government in place back then and which had been in place for more than 300 years.
‘This is not a burglaries care – we’ve got to be very clear about this. They were taken down, this was supervised, and they were shipped to the UK completely legally.’
Mr Fischer pointed out that if the Marbles were returned, they would be placed in a museum in Athens – and not at the original site on the Acropolis in Athens.
He also said he did not believe the clause in the EU’s negotiating mandate was in direct reference to the Elgin Marbles.
‘We have not chosen to stay out of this debate, we’ve just stated why we think that the Parthenon sculptures have their place also in the British Museum and not only in Athens,’ he said.
‘The line that was added clearly does not refer to this but to an entirely different problem.
A long-running historical dispute: What are the Elgin Marbles?
The Elgin Marbles are a collection of classical Greek marble sculptures, inscriptions and architectural members that were mostly created by Phidias and his assistants.
The 7th Earl of Elgin, Thomas Bruce, removed the Parthenon Marble pieces from the Acropolis in Athens while serving as the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799 to 1803.
In 1801, the Earl claimed to have obtained a permit from the Ottoman authorities to remove pieces from the Parthenon.
As the Acropolis was still an Ottoman military fort, Elgin required permission to enter the site.
His agents subsequently removed half of the surviving sculptures, as well as architectural members and sculpture from the Propylaea and Erechtheum.
The excavation and removal was completed in 1812 at a personal cost of around £70,000.
The sculptures were shipped to Britain, but in Greece, the Scots aristocrat was accused of looting and vandalism.
They were bought by the British Government in 1816 and placed in the British Museum. They still stand on view in the purpose-built Duveen Gallery.
Greece has sought their return from the British Museum through the years, to no avail.
The authenticity of Elgin’s permit to remove the sculptures from the Parthenon has been widely disputed, especially as the original document has been lost. Many claim it was not legal.
However, others argue that since the Ottomans had controlled Athens since 1460, their claims to the artefacts were legal and recognisable.
‘The line says the parties should address issues relating to the return and restitution of unlawfully removed cultural objects.
‘And here references is made very clearly to the Unesco convention on preventing the illicit transfer of ownership of cultural property. It came into being to prevent cultural heritage being looted and sold outside of their countries.
‘Here the British Museum is very much engaged and has been engaged in helping to identify these goods and help return them.’
Many Parthenon sculptures have been housed in the British Museum since 1816 after they were bought by the government from Lord Elgin.
Greece has long campaigned for their repatriation, and some UK politicians including Jeremy Corbyn have backed returning them.
But the government insists they were purchased legitimately and have been painstakingly preserved in the UK.
There have been warnings that giving back the artefacts would trigger requests from dozens of other countries for the repatriation of artworks in British museums.
The sculptures used to be on the Parthenon at the top of the Acropolis in Athens.
They were removed by Elgin between 1799 and 1810 after he received permission from the Ottoman empire, which ruled Greece at the time.
Elgin claimed he was worried about damage being done to the marbles, but their removal was criticised at the time by figures including Lord Byron.
According to a House of Commons briefing paper from 2017, the UK government’s position is that ‘issues relating to the ownership and management of the Parthenon sculptures are matters for the trustees of the British Museum’.