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The Parthenon Marbles Can Be Loaned to Greece and Never Return

Parthenon Marbles British Museum of London
The Duveen Gallery, which houses the Parthenon marbles. Credit: Solipsist / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-2.0

Greece insisted on Monday that Britain permanently return the Parthenon Marbles that have been in British possession for two centuries, adding that negotiations about their fate were “not easy.”

“The objective is their definitive return,” government spokesman Yiannis Oikonomou said in a news briefing.

Greece “does not recognize the British Museum’s possession and of course ownership of the sculptures,” he said. “It has always been Greece’s position.”

Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper reported last week that the sculptures could soon be returned as part of a “cultural exchange” being negotiated with Athens.

The deal, effectively a loan agreement, could see the 2,500-year-old antiquities returned “sooner rather than later,” the newspaper reported.

Loan of the Parthenon Marbles would become permanent

Such an arrangement could circumvent a legal ban on the museum breaking up its vast collection.

Under the British Museum Act 1963, the British Museum is allowed to return foreign artifacts only if objects are “unfit to be retained.” The legislation is primarily intended to cover extreme circumstances, such as human remains found in store.

George Osborne, former UK chancellor and now chair of trustees at the British Museum, has found a way around this legal problem. His scheme is for the marbles to be loaned.

John Picton, a Senior Lecturer in Charity Law at the University of Liverpool, says that a loan would not necessarily mean their eventual return to the British Museum.

“Ownership would be kept by the British Museum, even while the marbles will be rehoused in Athens,” he writes in The Conversation.”As a matter of law, it will be possible to claim that the sculptures have not, strictly speaking, been deaccessioned.”

“Once the marbles are rehoused in the specially built Acropolis Museum, it is unlikely that they will ever return to London,” he said. “Any request from future museum trustees would be met with a cold shoulder.”

“And so the ‘loan’ would permanently restore the sculptures to Athens, while leaving the British Museum Act 1963 and its general bar on deaccession intact,” the British academic says.

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