Alexander Herman interviewed by The Art Newspaper about continuing developments in the Parthenon Marbles debate

Posted on: March 3, 2020 by

The Parthenon or Elgin Marbles at the British Museum

Alexander Herman, IAL’s Assistant Director, was interviewed last month by The Art Newspaper for its weekly podcast to address the ongoing debate over ‘Who owns the Parthenon Marbles?’. In the interview, Alex discusses the recently leaked draft EU document which has raised speculation over whether the marbles could be drawn into deliberations about the future relationship between Britain and the EU. Since Alex’s interview, the final version of this document has been published and the relevant clause relating to cultural property has been maintained.

The document in question is a draft mandate which outlines the EU’s position in post-Brexit talks concerning ongoing relations with Britain. According to the Telegraph, the draft contains a clause which states that “The Parties should, consistently with Union rules, address issues relating to the return or restitution of unlawfully removed cultural objects to their countries of origin.” Despite the fact that the marbles are not explicitly named, the newspaper states that this “Elgin Marbles clause” was inserted at the request of Greece, Cyprus, Spain and Italy and was understood to refer to the marbles. However, as reported by Reuters, Greece have subsequently denied that this is the case and a spokesperson for the Greek Government, Stelios Petsas, has said that the marbles are not linked with Brexit negotiations. Similarly, a British Government spokesperson is reported to have denied that the ownership of the marbles is up for discussion.

In The Art Newspaper’s podcast, Alex begins by outlining the history of the marbles, as well as the history of the dispute over their ownership. He explains the relevance of the infamous ‘letter of permission’, which is said to have authorised Lord Elgin to remove the marbles from the Parthenon and bring them to London. The meaning of this letter, and the words used therein, remains central to debates over the legality of the marbles’ removal. Alex then discusses the development of the dispute, explaining the positions of the British Museum and the UK Government and the impact this has on Greece’s claim.

Turning to the issue of the EU draft document, Alex gives his opinion that the inclusion of such a statement is in line with current developments in EU policy. Recently, the EU have made efforts to stop the illicit trade of unlawfully removed cultural property, with a particular focus on preventing terrorist financing through these means. For example, in April 2019 an EU Regulation on the introduction and the import of cultural goods was implemented to tackle this matter and it is currently in force in the UK. According to Alex, the inclusion of this clause in the EU mandate for post-Brexit negotiations could be there to ensure that the UK maintains these new standards.

Next, Alex focusses on some broader issues which relate to the Parthenon Marbles and repatriation generally. For example, he discusses international attitudes to restitution and the varied approaches to restitution within the UK itself. Alex concludes by considering the wider implications Brexit might have on Greece’s claim to the marbles and the importance of museum-to-museum cooperation in resolving such disputes.


Image credit: © Andrew Dunn, Parthenon or Elgin Marbles at the British Museum via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0;