Once again there are calls for these grand sculptures to be returned to Greece. But the repatriation of historical artefacts is rarely straightforward
The British Museum has had only one request to return something from its vast collections that it regards as official. The Greek government has asked the British government if it can have the Parthenon marbles back. Stephen Fry also thinks the issue of these sculptures is unique. In December last year, in a blog picked up over the weekend by a restitution lobby group, Fry wrote: “The Parthenon affair is a special case.”
Which it is. That stunning building embodies the culture that gave us democracy, the Olympic Games and all that classical stuff we used to be taught at school. It inspired the Renaissance and Byron, and now the many who would like to see the bits in the British Museum – about half the surviving sculptures – given back to Greece.
Among the latter was the late Christopher Hitchens. For him the cause was the expression of a solidarity between a free Greece and “British liberals and radicals”. Fry agrees, calling the idea of a return an “act of friendship” in the time of Greece’s “appalling financial distress”.
A big reason for restitutioners to argue for the uniqueness of the Parthenon case is to counter claims that any return would set off a string of demands for other things from other countries: being friendly to Greece would not set a precedent. In practical terms that is probably true – comparable cases would continue to be judged on their own merit. And as the British Museum says, so far no other claims have been put to it through the formal route of one government to another.