Reflections on Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures

Greek newspaper TA NEA published an interesting article on the matter of reunification following Mr Baltas’ statement regarding litigation last week. The article features opinions by Greek government officials as well as international campaigners in favour of reunification. Mary Adamopoulou, who wrote the article, offered a careful analysis of the litigation debate in light of the events of the last 18 months

Please find a translation of the article below:

To some this sounded like the last thing that should trouble Greece amidst the financial crisis. Others were surprised as this came at a time when the matter seemed to be high on the agenda of the Ministry of Culture. However, it only took one statement in parliament, by the Minister [of Culture], to start the debate. According to this statement “the government doesn’t intend to go down the litigation route, mainly because we are at risk of losing the case in court”. And so the question is posed anew: Should Greece claim the return of the Parthenon Sculptures, through court or via other means?

This question gives rise to another, which is whether a well-substantiated affirmative or negative answer would suffice or whether the solution could magically present itself as it emerges through an entangled grey zone of politics, diplomacy, international current affairs, timing and contacts. At the same time, like a Lernaean Hydra, new matters arise: should a matter of such great national importance be used as a petty tool in the political opposition game? Who should handle such matters? And has the Hollywood limelight approach, in fact, harmed instead of aided the more discreet past efforts of the two sides [Greece and Britain]?

Opinions from Various Sides

Let’s try and answer each question in turn. Should Greece go down the litigation route to claim the Parthenon Sculptures back from Britain? “The right thing to do is for the Greek government not to seek legal recourse, but instead pursue a diplomatic solution” states the Chair of the British Committee for Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles and longtime advocate of the Greek position, Mr Eddie O’Hara. “though there is considerable evidence that Lord Elgin greatly abused the terms of the firman issued to him, there are still legal obstacles. For example the removal of the Sculptures was executed under Ottoman rule which is no longer in place. Furthermore, the Hellenic Republic had not yet been formed during Elgin’s actions and Britain could claim that the statute of limitations for this wrongdoing has expired, given that 200 years have gone by”. “It is not about having a defeatist attitude, but rather a realistic assessment of the situation. Every court case is unpredictable and can be characterised as an act of war. Who dares take the blame for permanently putting an end to the reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures. The Sculptures are unique, not a piece of land you go to court over” estimates a Greek experienced lawyer.

The Chair of the International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures, Australian born David Hill, who was instrumental in organising the visit to Athens of the legal team Amal Clooney was a part of, has a different opinion on the matter. “Throughout the years we have exhausted all political and diplomatic attempts. There has been no progress since Melina Mercouri’s time. There has been no change in the British Museum and British government’s position in the last 30 years. I personally believe that Greece has no other option beyond legally claiming back the Parthenon Sculptures”.

Both chairmen reassure us that they will respect and support whichever decision the Greek government makes. The point is whether Greek governments show all their cards at once or whether they bluff. The answer is given to us by the ex-Minister of Culture, Mr Kostas Tasoulas, who graciously welcomed Amal Clooney and who adamantly protested when the current Minister, Mr Aristideis Baltas, stated that Greece would not go down the litigation route, “I also believe that litigation is not the right choice. I do not disagree with Mr Baltas’ position, but with the fact that he publicly claimed that there’s a good chance we could lose such a court case. The legal team did not convince me either, but I did not make any statements regarding this. I believe that the possibility of a court case could be a weapon, act as a threat. I chose to take advantage of the publicity at the time, which resulted in three discussions on the subject [of reunification] in British Parliament. The British don’t like publicity, it makes them uncomfortable. And we intended to heighten the tension with various activities such as the conference of the 24 international committees for reunification of the Sculptures, a cartoon exhibition in favour of reunification in London and other events.”

It’s hard to deny, however, that Amal Clooney’s visit was part of the then government’s strategy to achieve positive results in national matters by either pursuing progress with the Amfipolis excavation or the cause to reunifiy the Parthenon Sculptures. Proof of this is the lengthy meetings the Prime Minister at the time, Mr Antonis Samaras, had with the three lawyers as a means of drawing importance to the matter, a fact that enraged the Greek litigation community as they had been overlooked by the Greek government.

Politicians or Archaeologists

Whether someone choses to interpret Mr Baltas’ move as the action of someone trying to distance themselves from the previous government’s actions (as did his predecessor Mr Nikos Xydakis) or not the point is that [Greek] politicians have not fared well, with the notable exception of Melina Mercouri who kickstarted the reunification campaign 33 years ago.

“Politicians should stay away from this matter”, states Nikos Stambolidis, Professor of Classical Archaeology and Director of the Museum of Cycladic Art, who suggests that the matter should be handled by museum directors and archaeologists, between who a mutual appreciation can develop and who can use their professional status and the connections that result from this to better approach the issue. He concludes by saying that “the most civilised approach is one based on mutual understanding, and the building of trust step by step for the eventual alleviation of the matter”. In such an approach, how helpful can the involvement of the prominent Amal Clooney be? “It depends on the timing”, claims a world renowned Greek archaeologist with extensive experience on the issue. “And her involvement, at that time, was not helpful at all”, he goes on to say as according to sources scientists from both countries had reached an understanding, which might have led to an impressive, albeit temporary, act of good will on the side of the British Museum, in exchange for items from equivalent Greek institutions and with the blessing of the government. However, the British Museum regarded Amal Clooney’s visit to Greece (following her marriage to George Clooney, who only a few months earlier had commented on reunification while promoting the film Monuments Men) as a threat which consequently froze any discussions on the matter.

Many also regard the loan of the Parthenon’s Western Frieze statue of the River God Illisos to the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburgh, as a diversionary tactic resulting from the commotion caused by Amal Clooney’s involvement. “The British Museum’s message to the world is clear: We loan the Sculptures to significant places of the world, something which will not happen if they are returned to the Acropolis Museum”, this is the opinion held by those well-informed in the Greek archaeological community who also consider the loan to the Hermitage museum a matter of foreign affairs, as necessitated by political and financial relations between the two countries at that time.

The article in Greek:

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