Brits Refuse Return of Parthenon Marbles After Turkey Finds No Proof of Claim

June 12, 2024

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By 

Elle Yap

The British Museum refused calls to return the Parthenon Marbles to Greece after Turkey rejected the long-standing claim by the United Kingdom that the statues were acquired by Lord Elgin from the Ottoman empire at the time. 

The statement from Turkey came during a UNESCO meeting in Paris, France. A British official parroted the claim that Lord Elgin received an imperial edict that allowed him to move the marbles to the United Kingdom. 

The ruins of the Parthenon in Athens. Photo by Steve Swayne. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The ruins of the Parthenon in Athens. Photo by Steve Swayne. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Turkish culture ministry’s anti-smuggling head Zeynep Boz rejected this claim outright. She said that the country has no archived documents from the era that proves the claim.

“Historians have for years searched the Ottoman archives and have not been able to find a ‘firman’ proving that the sale was legal, as it is being claimed,” she said. “To have remained silent would have amounted to acknowledging the British claim. I had to say: ‘We are not aware of such a document.’”

Disputes Over Lord Elgin’s Acquisition

The acquisition of the Parthenon Marbles has been in dispute for decades. Debate continues over the existence of the alleged edicts that gave Elgin the power to remove the marbles. Currently, the only surviving copy of the edict is an Italian translation that Turkey does not consider an official document.

The statement from Turkey’s anti-smuggling head received praise from multiple Greek officials. Many of them believe that Boz’s statement bolsters the country’s claims on the marbles. 

The Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon. Photo by Txllxt TxllxT. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon. Photo by Txllxt TxllxT. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

“There never was an Ottoman ‘firman’ granting Elgin the permission to treat the Parthenon Sculptures with the brutality with which he did,” Greek Cultural Minister Lina Mendoni said. 

“This is a very senior Turkish official who has all the archives, all the services at her disposal and what she is saying, that nothing has been found, that there is no document, is hugely important. They looked and couldn’t find it and that’s because it never existed,” Elena Korka, director of antiquities and cultural heritage for Greece, said. 

British Museum Seeks ‘Realistic Solutions’

The United Kingdom enacted laws in the past preventing the country from repatriating cultural artifacts to their country of origin. Current UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak himself said that the Parthenon Marbles remain an asset to the country. 

The British Museum released a statement saying that they are seeking “realistic solutions” to the issue. 

A spokesperson for the museum said that they were “keen to develop a new relationship with Greece — a ‘Parthenon partnership’ — and to explore the possibility of innovative ways of working (with our Greek friends) in the hope that understanding of the Parthenon Sculptures deepens and continues to inspire people across the world.”

The British stands firm on their stance that Lord Elgin legally acquired the Marbles in 1832. Among the solutions suggested by the government over the years include a potential loan between the two countries in 2023. This potential agreement broke down after Greece refused to reaffirm the United Kingdom’s claim on the statues. 

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Photo by European Parliament. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Photo by European Parliament. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Recently, the bilateral relationship between the countries deteriorated over this issue. Last year, Sunak canceled a meeting with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis over the belief that Mitsotakis would use it to discuss the topic. The cancellation prompted a war of words between the two leaders, with Mitsotakis expressing annoyance over the cancellation.

Related reading: Why Won’t the UK Return Looted Artifacts to Their Countries of Origin?

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