In a landmark agreement, the UK will hold formal talks with Greece in regard to the repatriation of the Parthenon marbles, which Greece has actively sought since 1983. Also known as the Elgin marbles, the ancient sculptures were stolen from the Acropolis in 1801 by Lord Elgin and have been held in the collection of London’s British Museum for more than two hundred years. No date has yet been set for an initial meeting, which was proposed by the UK on April 29 and accepted by Greece. Unesco announced the agreement on May 17.
Created between 447 BCE and 432 BCE, the contested objects comprise fifteen metopes, seventeen pedimental figures, and a nearly 250-foot section of a frieze depicting a festival procession celebrating the birthday of the Greek goddess Athena. The British government has for decades relied on the so-called Bloomsbury defense in its effort to retain possession of the sculptures, claiming that the items are owned by the British Museum and thus not subject to government oversight. Museum officials, for their part, have maintained that the objects were legally acquired at a time when Greece was under Ottoman rule.
News of the milestone agreement comes as repatriations surge around the world, with a spate of returns of Benin bronzes at the forefront. The British Museum, home to a considerable trove of the objects looted from the Kingdom of Benin by British soldiers in 1897, has notoriously dragged its feet on returning the treasures, though the pact to discuss the fate of the Parthenon marbles offers a glimmer of hope that this may soon change. Among the institutions that have returned their Benin bronzes thus far are the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, DC, which in March revealed that it would return the thirty-nine items in its possession, the greatest number repatriated to date. The announcement followed repatriations by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dublin’s National Museum of Ireland, and museums across Germany.