Behind a Centuries-Old International Feud Over Marbles

Museums around the world are filled with other countries' ancient treasures. But for the last 200 years, Greece has fought to reclaim its own.

ATHENS, Greece—"All of this marble is in London," says Dimitrios Pandermalis, reluctantly gesturing to an entire wall of plaster copies of art that used to be on the Parthenon.

The president of the Acropolis Museum is clearly tired of rehashing to another foreign journalist the 200-year-old fight between Greece and the United Kingdom. But he knows and believes the script entirely: "It's a crime," the elder curator tells me in the glass-walled museum at the foot of the ancient citadel. "It's important to have the originals here. It's one unit."

That so-called crime, as most Greeks still refer to it, was when from 1801 and 1805 the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire detached, cut, crowbarred, and hauled half of the surviving marble art from the Parthenon back to his residence in London. Since the Ottomans ruled Athens at the time—and for around 350 years before—he supposedly got permission from the proper authorities to have at it. They just so happened to have not been Greek. In financial trouble, the ambassador, named Lord Elgin, finally sold the pieces to the British government in 1816. They were then transferred to the British Museum, and have been there ever since.

The level of fatigue from Pandermalis makes sense after decades of trying to get the marbles returned to Athens; the Greeks have lobbied for them since gaining independence in 1830. The Acropolis Museum was built five years ago primarily to show the international community that Greece could adequately display the marbles without exposing them to the polluted Athens air and unstable Acropolis grounds.

Further, the Greeks aren't asking for all their antiquities back, they say, just the marbles of the Parthenon. They are pieces of a symbol: one building, one complete work of art that embodies the birth of democracy.

But while Athenian facilities have changed, the British position has remained firm: The Parthenon marbles rightfully belong to them and will remain in their museum. For nearly 200 years, British officials say, the museum took care of the artifacts and invested heavily in their preservation and restoration. If the marbles had remained, they may have been irremediably damaged like so much of the Parthenon has been. Plus, they argue, by bringing the antiquities to a major city like London for millions of visitors to see, interest in Ancient Greece, and thus the modern state of Greece, increased globally.

For many of the most prominent museums, their acquired antiquities belong to all people in the world, and not necessarily to the modern country where the items came from thousands of years ago. As one British columnist wrote, it is "ridiculous to try to claim that the modern Athenian carries the blood of Pericles and of fifth-century Athenians in his veins." Another commentator notes that because the world is so diverse and interconnected culturally, "the Parthenon Marbles are as much British as they are Greek."

This is how the Berlin Neues justifies holding on to the bust of Queen Nefertiti, or the British Museum keeps the Rosetta Stone, both despite requests from Egypt to have them returned. If every museum in Europe or the United States agreed to return antiquities to their countries of origin, their collections would be drained and millions of people, museums say, would be left without items of historical significance. Plus, the fact that items are in certain museums only adds to their individual history. Today, there are Ancient Greek treasures in a Moscow museum that were taken from Germany after World War II.

There have been cases in recent years where countries have successfully lobbied for the return of their artifacts, but those had to deal with items that were unquestionably stolen or looted. Turkey has stood out in this area, receiving a Hittite Empire sphinx from the Pergamon Museum in Berlin and the Weary Herakles statue from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York recently returned an ancient bowl called the Euphronios krater, and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles returned a terracotta head of Hades, both to Italy. And in July, Germany returned 10,600 Greek artifacts removed illegally by Nazis during World War II.

The Greeks argue that the Parthenon, in the same vein, was looted illegally, where a British diplomat received a shoddy permit by a disaffected foreign ruler to take the national treasures of a powerless people.

Italy, the Vatican, and Sweden have all returned pieces of Parthenon marble, but dozens of items remain in not only London, but also in Paris, Copenhagen, Vienna, Munich, and Wurzburg. Do those pieces belong in "universal museums" that tell a broad story of world history? Or do they belong in a museum that tells the whole story of Ancient Greece's most famous symbol?

That's a debate for the British Museum and the Acropolis Museum to work out, and it's a debate that has taken its toll on the relationship between the two museums—and countries. "They are not so happy for this international pressure," Pandermalis admits about the British Museum. "Of course, we should keep bridges for future agreement. If you have only clashes, it's not possible to have success." But success for him is to have all the marbles in Athens. And so the debate continues.