Italy returns marble artefact to Greece: is it time the UK did the same?

A loan agreement between museums in Sicily and Athens renews pressure on Britain to repatriate ancient Parthenon Marbles

This fragment is from a draped figure on the east side of the Parthenon frieze. The temple, built between 449 and 438 BC on the Acropolis of Athens, will be returned to Greece in what both sides hope will be a permanent return. It is hoped the move will encourage other museums to do the same. The British Museum houses about half of the surviving 5th century BC sculptures that decorated the Parthenon temple. Photo: Antonino Salinas Archaeological Museum
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An Italian museum in Sicily is returning a fragment of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece in a significant exchange of cultural heritage that has renewed calls for the British Museum to do the same.

The marble fragment depicting the foot of either the goddess Peitho or Artemis peeking out from under a ruffled tunic is currently held at the Archaeological Museum Antonino Salinas in Palermo, Sicily.

However, after several years of negotiation between Greek and Italian authorities, the artefact is being returned on a four-year extendable loan agreement between the two EU countries. In return, the Palermo museum will temporarily receive a 5th-century BC headless statue of the goddess Athena and an 8th-century BC amphora from the Acropolis Museum in Athens.

The return of part of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece by an Italian museum is a significant step forward in the debate about the repatriation of looted cultural artefacts. Photo: Archaeological Museum Antonino Salinas

The ultimate aim, the Sicilian museum said, is the “indefinite return” of the fragment to Greece.

The exchange feeds into the ongoing debate about the decolonisation of cultural institutions that often have stolen wares in their collections.

Last year, France returned 26 looted colonial-era bronzes from Benin to Nigeria after growing calls in Africa for European countries to return colonial spoils. The University of Cambridge followed suit by returning a bronze cockerel statue to Nigeria. Germany said it too would hand back ancient pillaged artworks, which were originally stolen by British troops at the end of the 19th century, later this year.

However, the UK’s largest hoarder of international artefacts is reluctant to heed the calls for their return to their origins. The British Museum’s controversial cache of cultural objects includes among them Greek artworks, which Athens has repeatedly requested be returned.

The Parthenon Marbles are a collection of Classical Greek sculptures, taken from Greece by Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin, in the early 1800s and later sold to the British Museum, where they are currently on display. About half the surviving 5th century BC sculptures that decorated the Parthenon temple on the Acropolis are in the British Museum in London, but small fragments are also held in other European museums.

Palermo’s piece of the Parthenon was acquired by way of a 19th-century English consul in Sicily named Robert Fagan, although how he came to acquire it is unknown. After Fagan died, his widow sold the fragment to what is now called the Antonino Salinas regional museum, the statement said.

“Sending back to the context of its origins a small, but significant, fragment belonging to the Parthenon has a very strong symbolic value,” said Sicily’s councillor for culture, Alberto Samona. “It is also a response to the international debate [about the Parthenon artefacts]. But I don’t want to get into that debate. For us, this is a gesture of friendship – Greece and Sicily are two areas of the Mediterranean that share a common story.”

In 2019, the British Museum was likened to a criminal operation by one of Britain's most famed barristers, who called the London institution the "world’s largest receiver of stolen property".

Geoffrey Robertson QC, a human rights barrister and author, criticised the museum for displaying objects taken from “subjugated peoples” by “conquerors or colonial masters” in his book, Who Owns History? Elgin's Loot and the Case for Returning Plundered Treasure.

In the same month, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis demanded that the UK return the marbles, while also offering to loan some of its treasures to the British Museum. Both the institution and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson continue to reject the demands, insisting the marbles were acquired legally by Lord Elgin who has previously said he was “acting with the full knowledge and permission of the Ottoman authorities" who ruled Greece at the time.

Updated: January 09, 2022, 5:53 PM