The Parthenon Marbles Dispute

Katie and Steve take a deep dive into the history and current status of the Parthenon Marbles with Alexander Herman, director of the Institute of Art and Law in London and author of the recent book The Parthenon Marbles Dispute: Heritage, Law, Politics.


Episode Transcription

Steve Schindler:  Hi, I’m Steve Schindler.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  I’m Katie Wilson-Milne.

Steve Schindler:  Welcome to The Art Law Podcast, a monthly podcast exploring the places where art intersects with and interferes with the law.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  The Art Law Podcast is sponsored by the law firm of Schindler Cohen & Hochman LLP, a premier litigation and art law boutique in New York City.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  Hi, Steve.

Steve Schindler:  Hi, Katie, how are you?

Katie Wilson-Milne:  I’m great, and I’m really excited for today’s topic.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  I’ve been wanting to do sort of a historical look-back podcast on something juicy, and that’s what we’re going to do today.

Steve Schindler:  Oh, you’re going to keep me in suspense.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  We’re going to talk about what are alternatively called the Elgin Marbles, the Parthenon Marbles, and that are currently housed in the British Museum under much dispute.

Steve Schindler:  I’m old enough and have been teaching long enough that I remember starting to teach about the Elgin Marbles, and then somewhere along the line, they were sort of renamed as the Parthenon Marbles, but we’ll hear more about that today from our guest, Alexander Herman, who is the director of the Institute of Art and Law, and has written, taught, and presented on an array of topics in relation to art, law, and cultural property. His writing appears regularly in The Art Newspaper, and he has been quoted widely in the press on art law topics, including The Guardian, The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Telegraph, ArtNet, and The Financial Times. His books include Restitution: The Return of Cultural Artifacts, which he wrote in 2021, and the book that we’re going to be talking about today, The Parthenon Marbles Dispute: Heritage, Law, and Politics, which just came out in 2023. Alex’s work has also been cited in the UK House of Lords and in an amicus brief before the US Supreme Court. He’s trained in both common law and civil law legal systems at McGill University and practice law in Montreal, Canada. So we’re delighted to welcome Alex Herman.

Alexander Herman:  Thanks for having me.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  And maybe we can start by you explaining what the Parthenon Marbles are and why they’re called the Parthenon Marbles.

Alexander Herman:  Or are they called the Parthenon Marbles?

Katie Wilson-Milne:  Or are they?

Katie Wilson-Milne:  You can talk about, please, yes, or the Elgin Marbles and what’s the daylight there?

Alexander Herman:  Well, I go into great detail on this in footnote two of my introduction, but I won’t bore you with too much of the detail. They’re usually referred to now as either the Parthenon Sculptures or the Parthenon Marbles. They used to be called the Elgin Marbles, especially in the UK. That’s a term that does cause offense in Greece, as I learned when I was researching this book. And I was in Athens and somebody politely took me aside and said, “nobody refers to these as the Elgin Marbles anymore, so please stop.” And I respected that view. I use Parthenon Marbles in the title and throughout the book because I think it does a good job of indicating that the contentious pieces of property are the marbles that are at the British Museum. Cause we have to keep in mind that about half of what remains from the Parthenon is in Athens today and it’s at the Acropolis Museum. So when you say Parthenon Marbles, usually you’re referring to those pieces that are contentious and that are at the British Museum. So that’s, I guess, the terminology out of the way. 

In terms of the history of these pieces, well, we could go back to the fifth century BC when they were part of the Parthenon in the glory days in the golden age of Athens. And the Parthenon was built under Pericles, the great leader. And it was said that all the best sculptors and architects and designers were involved in creating this amazing temple, as it then was.  It had a long and complicated history. It eventually became a church during the Christian period, it became a mosque during the Ottoman Empire, and then it became a ruin when it was attacked by the Venetians in the 17th century.  And that sets the scene in a sense for Lord Elgin’s men arriving in Athens circa 1800. Elgin was the ambassador from Great Britain to the Ottoman Empire.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  We call them marbles, because they’re pieces of this ancient monument, like friezes and pieces of the interior and exterior of the original temple that are made of marble, right? Is that why we use that term?

Alexander Herman:  Yeah, exactly, exactly.  So the Parthenon, like many of the buildings on the Acropolis, were built out of what’s called Pentelic marble, which comes from a great big mountain to the north of Athens. Pieces were quarried from there and then brought all the way to Athens. And yeah, so the temple itself had architectural sculpture, which included frieze, pediment sculptures, and what are called metopes, which sit along the outside above the columns.  So they were all carved in this beautiful white marble, and some of the best carvings of ancient sculpture were located on that building. So that’s the origin story of the Parthenon Marbles.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  And then one more pre-Elgin question. Can you just take us through the condition of the ruins in these different time periods that becomes a church, the 350-year Ottoman Empire, ruling what is now Greece, when it’s a mosque and a military compound, and then there’s the Venetian bombings? So what is the condition of the structure over that time prior to when the British, or I guess, Elgin, not the British government, we can talk about that distinction, but Elgin starts this project to remove and take some of these objects.

Alexander Herman:  Yeah, so these pieces were sculpted into the building, so they were part of the fabric of the building, and the building, especially when it was bombed during the war with Venice in the 17th century, it exploded, and so about half the columns collapsed. Many of the sculptures were thrown to the ground or completely destroyed, and so it became effectively a ruin. So you had many of the frieze pieces, for example, were scattered across the site after the attack, and some of the pieces that were still on the building were quite severely damaged. Some of them are in better shape than others, and that’s something you can still see today at the British Museum, at the Acropolis Museum as well, but certainly it was no longer a functioning building of any sort.  It was effectively a ruin, what we might term a monument today, but they wouldn’t have called it that back then.

Steve Schindler:  Right, so I have just one more follow-up on that topic before we get to Lord Elgin and his activities in Greece.  At the time that Lord Elgin was in the Ottoman Empire and at the Acropolis, would you say that the marbles broadly that were ultimately brought back to Britain, were they attached to the structure? Were they lying around?

Katie Wilson-Milne:  What was the condition?

Steve Schindler:  How would you describe the structure?

Alexander Herman:  So there’s a mix actually. It’s usually understood to be about a third of the marbles that were taken came off the remnants of the building itself. So Elgin’s men constructed scaffolding. They climbed up 15, 20 feet in the air and they removed pieces from the fabric of the building. And that caused significant architectural damage to the building as well, to what was left of the building. But then about two-thirds of the pieces were effectively buried amidst the rubble around the site. Some of them had been used to build makeshift buildings by the Ottomans, because it was a military garrison at the time. So some of the pieces were actually taken out of those structures, those houses and other things that were built on the site. So there’s a mix in that sense. So it’s not that everything was taken off the building, but it’s not that everything was just excavated from the ground. It was a mix of the two.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  What was the Ottomans’ approach to cultural property? I mean, there was this Venetian bombing in a war against the Ottoman Empire that was the major cause of destruction at the Acropolis. But I’m just curious, what were the Ottomans doing with respect to Greek cultural property?

Alexander Herman:  Well, I think one of the great authors, Edhem Eldem, writes about this. He talks about it as blissful indifference. So I think that’s probably the best we can hope for at that time. There was no inherent interest in archeology or the ancient past amongst the Ottomans at that time. That started to change throughout the 19th century. There became more of an acute interest, mainly because they saw how Westerners were so interested and valued these pieces. But certainly at the time circa 1801, when Elgin’s men started to get to work at the Acropolis in Athens, there was largely an indifference and in some cases some mild hostility to those pieces. There were stories that they were taking pot shots at sculptures and obviously using them in their own structures and using them as building material effectively showed that they didn’t hold these pieces in very high regard.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  I guess one reason I’m asking is I’m wondering to what extent there was significant destruction or damage during the Ottoman period before Elgin sort of starts this project to remove objects to Britain.

Alexander Herman:  Yeah, I mean it’s a very disputed point, isn’t it? Because part of the argument in favor of removing the pieces both at the time of Elgin and afterwards was that these pieces were rescued from the, let’s say the barbarism of the Turks, to use the term that was used back then. And so I think that becomes quite a contentious point. It’s clear there is evidence, because you can see some of these pieces, they took molds of some of them at the time, and you can see what happened subsequent to that point, and you can see that actually they’ve deteriorated, because they were broken down or they were taken apart or neglected. So there is evidence to show that some of the pieces actually deteriorated and were not treated particularly well. Now that started to change, and we can come back to this after, when Greece became an independent state in 1832. And one of the first things they did as an independent sovereign state was to make sure they had a good antiquities law, which was the first of its kind anywhere in the world, and that they protected those pieces from the ancient past, including and especially on the Acropolis.

Steve Schindler:  Yeah, that was really incredible. I don’t think I knew that. I think, you know, we always think of some of those sort of patrimony laws as, you know, dating maybe as early as the early 20th century, but the fact that Greeks had this law back in the early 1800s was, I think, fascinating.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  And part of the story of their fight for independence, you know, against what they saw as a 350-year occupation by the Ottoman Empire, so that that was really part of the offense and something that needed to be addressed right away. Fascinating.

Steve Schindler:  So should we talk about Lord Elgin?

Katie Wilson-Milne:  Let’s talk about him and also let’s not talk about him in the sense that let’s talk about all the other people involved in this project and, you know, tell the story of how the marbles go from the ruins of the Acropolis, you know, at the end of the 18th, beginning of the 19th century and then get to the British Museum, which is a detailed story.

Alexander Herman:  Yeah, well, thank you for prompting me with the let’s not talk about Elgin, because one of the things I tried to do in the book was to, in a sense, contextualize Lord Elgin and, in a sense, downplay his role in the whole thing, which I think is historically accurate, because what you see from reading the original documents is that Elgin was the ambassador from Great Britain to the Ottoman Empire, where they had their capital in Constantinople, which is today Istanbul. So he was many hundreds of miles away from Athens, but he sent a number of artists that he had picked up in Italy on the way out to Constantinople, and they were sent to Athens. So Elgin wasn’t even in Athens when the pieces started to be removed. Now, obviously, he was sending instructions via letter and so on, but he wasn’t actually there on the ground. And he didn’t come to Athens until about nine months after the work of removing these pieces had started. So the way I try to tell the story is to look at the other individuals involved. He had a chaplain who acted as his personal secretary named Hunt, who went to Athens from Constantinople, who held this infamous letter from the Ottoman court, which gave permission, allegedly, to Elgin’s agents on the ground to start measuring, to start painting, to start taking molds, to directing scaffolding on the site, but also to taking away some pieces of stone with inscriptions and figures from the site. Now, a lot of ink has been spilled over that term. So Hunt was one person, and then the other one I’ll mention is Lusieri, who is the artist who Elgin had picked up in Italy. And Lusieri was very involved in all of the palm-greasing and the deal-making that resulted in these pieces being removed over several years. I mean, it took a long time. If you think roughly 90 large pieces of marble, sculpted marble, many of them were sawed down, chiseled down to make them easier to transport, but very heavy and they had to be carted all the way to the port and then they had to wait for ships to take them to Malta and then eventually to England. I mean, it was a huge enterprise if you think about it.

Steve Schindler:  Right, and not wanting to emphasize Lord Elgin too much, but clearly he came to the task with some premeditated idea, right—

Katie Wilson-Milne:  Yeah, let’s step back

Steve Schindler:   —that he wanted to accomplish something—

Katie Wilson-Milne:  Right. 

Steve Schindler:  —because as you say, he picked up an artist, he had a love of art, I gather, and antiquities, but what did he go there intending to do, if we know?

Katie Wilson-Milne:  Right. I mean, he’s in Constantinople being an ambassador. How does this project come about? And then if you could talk about how it logistically works through the administration of the Ottoman Empire, too. Obviously that’s important, because it’s not the case of the many controversies, it’s not the case that Elgin just sends people in unannounced to start hacking away at the Acropolis. You know, this is, as you said, it took many years, it was out in public, you know, this was a known thing that was happening with some administrative approval. So if you could just explain that, and also, you know, Elgin’s interest in doing this.

Alexander Herman:  Well, Elgin, at the time, just before he went off on his diplomatic post, he was redoing his country estate in Scotland, and his architect gave him this idea that because Athens was part of the Ottoman Empire at the time, it would be good to send artists there to start drawing some of the famous sculptures and some of the monuments there, and making molds and measurements and all the rest of it, so that people in Britain could better understand classical antiquity. Because there was this new fad for everything that was Greek. That was starting to become part of the main discourse when it came to art and architecture in the very early part of the 19th century. So that’s what gave Elgin the idea. He tried to petition Parliament. He tried to get support from the government, basically to pay for it. They almost sent out Turner, the famous artist, but Turner— I think his price tag was a little too high for Elgin. So he went out and that’s why they stopped in Sicily. They were in Italy, and then they picked up these local artists there, including Lusieri, and brought them to Athens. Now, so originally the plan was for Elgin and his men to be drawing these pieces, taking replicas basically, making molds for casts and that sort of thing. But originally the plan was not to physically remove anything, because no one really thought that was even possible. It wasn’t even on the radar at the time. And what happened was into the project about six months or so, I mentioned Hunt, who was Elgin’s chaplain and his sometime secretary, he came over to Athens from Constantinople, and he realized what was happening, that the Turks were mistreating these pieces, that the artists were not even getting good access to the site. So he started to campaign for larger powers for the artists, to have basically the rights to go in, to do what they needed to do, including take away some pieces from the site. So that’s when it started to change.

So that was in early 1801, and then finally through the machinations of Hunt and Constantinople, they were able to get this letter from the Ottoman court in the capital that came to Athens with Hunt in July of 1801. And so that’s the infamous document that a lot of people have talked about over the years, and where there’s a lot of controversy about what exactly it extends to. That’s, I think, what sets up the initial removal of pieces from the building and that excavation around the site and, you know, this whole project that took about three years to complete.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  What does that letter say, to the best of your ability to interpret it?

Alexander Herman:  In my 18th century Italian?

Alexander Herman:  Well, unfortunately, so the original letter does not exist.

Alexander Herman:  Believe me, many people have tried to find it in various archives in Athens and in Istanbul, to no success.

Alexander Herman:  But the version that we have is an Italian translation that would have accompanied the original document to Athens. Why was it in Italian? Because that was a language that Hunt, Elgin and some of the other Westerners understood. Whereas if you think about it back then, if you’re going with, let’s say, a legal letter from Constantinople that’s written in Ottoman Turkish, as a Westerner, you wouldn’t even know what you’re holding. So you wouldn’t know how to negotiate based on that. You wouldn’t know what the terms meant, what to refer to, et cetera. So it was Hunt’s idea to have a translation in Italian that he could at least be guided by so he could negotiate with the local officials in Athens. And so we have that Italian translation. There’s no reason to dispute the veracity of that particular translation. Obviously on some of the specific terms, there might have been a bit of artistic license in terms of how it was translated, but I think that we can pretty much rest assured that that Italian translation is as close to possible to the original Ottoman document.

Steve Schindler:  And can you talk a little bit, as you do in your book, who is the author of that letter and on what authority was it issued? Because I know the sultan was the ruler of the Ottoman Empire. I imagine the letter is not from him, but maybe you can just talk a little bit about the source of the letter.

Alexander Herman:  So at the time, there were legal documents known as firmans or firmans, and those were edicts that came directly from the sultan. And you can actually go, I mean, if you go to any sort of museum in Turkey or in the Middle East, you often see examples of firmans going all the way back to the 14th century. And they were very impressive official legal documents. Now, at the time, circa 1801, Westerners in the Ottoman Empire tended to refer to any document coming out of the Ottoman court as a firman. My understanding from the research that I did and looking at what actual firmans looked like, I don’t think this was a firman. So I don’t think it was an edict that came from the sultan. And obviously, that would be the highest order that could be achieved in the Ottoman legal system. Instead, this was a letter from the deputy Grand Vizier, so basically the second-in-command in the Ottoman court. We couldn’t call it a government, wasn’t really that, but the court. And someone who was standing in for the Grand Vizier, who was off with the army fighting the French in Egypt. So I think we can respect that this was a letter coming from an official, giving specific orders to local officials in Athens, namely what was called the Voivode, who was the governor of Athens at the time, and the judge, who was the Ottoman judge operating out of Athens at the time as well. So there have been many viewpoints on what this document was. And my conclusion, having looked at all the evidence, I thought it’s unlikely to be a true firmament coming from the sultan, yet it does have legal force, because it came from the deputy Grand Vizier. And if you look at the language through the Italian translation, it does look like it’s ordering the local officials to respect what Elgin’s men are doing, to give them the liberty to access the site, to put up scaffolding, etc, and to take away some pieces of stone with inscriptions and figures.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  And as part of your analysis on this, the actual behavior of the actors involved after this letter arrives, because for me, we can argue about what the exact meaning of this document is, if it came from the right person, if it was delivered in the proper way. I mean, you have to interpret Ottoman law, obviously. But for years afterwards, it does seem like everyone involved acted like this was sort of agreed upon, that Elgin’s men could go in, make these copies, take these objects, spend years transporting them, storing them at the port, eventually getting them on a ship, without any resistance. So, I’m curious your thoughts on that, if that’s relevant in your analysis of either the historical permissions given or relationship, and then I guess ultimately we’ll talk about the claims of title that the British Museum has based on that.

Alexander Herman:  Yeah, I think it is relevant, because it helps us get a sense of how the people on the ground would have interpreted that kind of document, and we’re talking about the Voivode, the governor of Athens, who would have seen many letters ordering him to do this or that coming from Constantinople throughout his career, and the fact that there was no real protest, even though all of this took place over several years, involving, we’re talking about hundreds of laborers, mainly, who were carting pieces away from the Acropolis to Piraeus to the port many miles away and then putting them on ships, etc. So there were many opportunities for some kind of real protest. And interestingly, when the House of Commons back in the UK looked at all of this, that was really the main reason why they thought Elgin had obtained permission for removing these pieces, was that it happened over, exactly what you’re saying, Katie, it happened over a long period of time. There’s no evidence of any protest, and so it must have been that he had the full permission to do what he did.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  I thought this was an important historical element in your book, too, that somehow Elgin just asks the court in Constantinople to take all this stuff, and they say, “sure, I’ll give you an official document, go do it.” That makes it sound like, what were they getting in return? But there is some historical context to this. Britain, which had long not been aligned with the Ottoman Empire, suddenly becomes aligned with the Ottoman Empire because of their mutual enemy, the French, and helps the Ottoman Empire ward off French occupation of Egypt, right? So there is this relationship at this precise moment that enables this deal and goodwill and desire from the Ottoman court to befriend the British and, I guess, thank them and keep them in their good graces, that maybe at another moment in time, this would have never happened.

Alexander Herman:  Yeah, I mean, in a way, we can blame Napoleon for all of this, right? Because Napoleon was the one who invaded what was effectively a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, Egypt, and brought along the Egyptologists to do all their excavations there. But that pushed the Ottomans against the French into the arms of Great Britain. So a lot of it is quite historical and contextual. And that’s one of the reasons, Katie, why I tried to de-emphasize the role of Elgin. Sometimes when we just tell a story of an individual, it can be polarizing because some people will say, “well, he was a man of the Enlightenment, he was a savior of these great works that otherwise would have fallen into disrepair.” And then others who say, “well, no, he was an aristocrat, he was useless, he suffered from all these diseases like syphilis and so on.” And it starts to get very personal. Sorry, I’ve repeated all of that, which is not my intention.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  That’s interesting color.

Alexander Herman:  Yeah, well, you hear that a lot if you go to pro-restitution.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  Really? That’s so interesting. How beside the point? I mean— his syphilis, I mean.

Steve Schindler:  There was also, I mean, in that long laundry list, Lord Elgin, of course, was there in his official capacity as an ambassador to the Ottoman court, and then he, of course, is removing objects and bringing them back to Britain in his personal capacity as Lord Elgin. And so there has been criticism along the way about how he may have used his official position to leverage, for that reason that you were saying, Katie, leveraging the relationship between the two countries for his own personal gain.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  Right, and interestingly, which we’ll get to in a moment, one of the most interesting things about this book is just the picture of the British Empire that it paints in this real desire by the British to do things, air quotes, fairly and with order and to examine everything. And so they have this examination in the UK of Elgin’s actions when these objects come back and if they were proper and if title was properly gained. And it was a little surprising to me, because we do oversimplify and just say, these are the bad actors, these are the good actors. These are the people with power, these are not. And it was just a fascinating picture of how, why they needed to do that, I’m not sure, but that the British did go to all these lengths to really examine the fairness and the conflicts of interest that Elgin had and if title really passed, which we’ll get to in a minute. So Elgin arranges this project at the Acropolis without any resistance, at least from the Ottomans. Eventually these objects get put on a boat to be taken back to the UK. And when is that?

Alexander Herman:  So that starts in the first year of the removals, 1801. To get to completion, as in to remove those pieces and actually ship them out, it takes about 10 years. The last shipment left in 1811. Elgin was no longer ambassador at that point. It was one of his successors, Lord Adair, who got the final export permit. And actually, that’s another piece of evidence that often is overlooked. And actually, it’s only been uncovered in the last 10 or 15 years by researchers in Istanbul that they’ve actually found that was a firman. It came from the sultan. It actually had the signature of the sultan on it, which was an export document. I know you talk about export documents in terms of cultural property claims, et cetera, more recently, but there was an export document that very explicitly referred to the crates that were waiting at the port in Piraeus near Athens and everything that Elgin had done, and it’s all referred to quite explicitly, and it allows permission to leave for those pieces.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  I mean, that to me is probably the most significant document, and maybe it’s just funny from our perspective. Today, there’s all this emphasis on providing export paperwork for works that moved decades ago, for which there is absolutely no export paperwork, because they’re just, it wasn’t normal to be done, and it doesn’t exist, and yet all these laws, especially in the EU and also ethical norms require these review of export paperwork. It doesn’t exist. And yet, we have this export paperwork from 1801, and presumably Ottoman Turkish. 1811, that is crazy.

Alexander Herman:  I mean, to go to your point, it took decades of research to uncover. That was only uncovered, as I said, about 10 or 15 years ago, and so it wasn’t really part of the discourse until then. And it was published by Edhem Eldem, who I mentioned is a great Turkish scholar of the Ottoman period. And it was published in a book relatively recently. So it wasn’t, you know, the John Henry Merryman articles on all of this and the debate in the 90s and 2000s. That document was not referred to, which is one of the reasons why I think it’s important to go back to the history and to see what we have and to start piecing things together. But it did take a long time for people, for researchers to actually discover that document. It was in an Ottoman archive in Istanbul.

Steve Schindler:  That’s fascinating. Maybe we should talk now a little bit about the transfer of the marbles from Lord Elgin to the British government and how that happened.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  And what was the process by which that happened? We’ve alluded to it briefly in terms of the procedures in Parliament, but…

Alexander Herman:  So Elgin spent a lot of money on the whole enterprise.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  And he paid for this personally?

Alexander Herman:  He paid for it personally. So I mentioned he tried to get government support when he went out and the government wasn’t having— I mean, this is in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars, so they had other fish to fry. And so he paid for it. It was on his own dime. And he was very close to insolvency, and he had these pieces that initially nobody realized were that great. He brought them back. He thought he was going to make some big fanfare. And a lot of people said, well, they’re Roman copies, or we don’t have proof that these are original. You know, lack of provenance. They wouldn’t have used that term, obviously. But, you know, there was a lot of questions around the pieces. nd it took a few years for the great and the good in London and around Europe to realize how important these pieces were. And there were, you know, the famous sculptor Canova in Italy, he recognized how amazing they were. Goethe, the German writer. So people were kind of, over time, starting to come around to realizing how important, how central these fragments were. And Elgin realized he needed to do something because obviously he had these debts. He went through a very costly divorce around this time. And so he ended up petitioning Parliament to put the money together to transfer it to the British Museum so that the British Museum trustees could buy the pieces from him.

Steve Schindler:  They did purchase the pieces.

Steve Schindler:  And how much was that for?

Alexander Herman:  So he had put his expenses together and it was around 70,000 pounds back then, which would be millions today. And they ended up purchasing them from him for 35,000 pounds, so about half of what he had asked for. So he wasn’t happy by this, by the way. There are letters that he was writing to his associates, basically just moaning and complaining about how cheap Parliament was for just choosing that such a low amount. So that’s kind of an interesting little anecdote.

Steve Schindler:  So he lost money on this.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  He lost money. And was that a punishment or in some way a statement about Elgin’s behavior? If you could just also describe the process by which this whole deal gets done, which is not just, okay, we’ll buy them for the British Museum and that’s done, it was surprisingly involved.

Alexander Herman:  Yeah. I mean, your first question, Katie, the amount that they paid, the thinking was, and this came from a select committee that had examined this in 1816 after Elgin had petitioned the House of Commons, the thinking was that, okay, maybe Elgin acquired these because he was the ambassador, even though it was in his personal capacity, it looks as though he got the benefit from the Turks because he was an ambassador, because Britain was in such good favor with the Turks. And so we don’t want to reward that. So we’re only going to pay this smaller amount so that we don’t encourage ambassadors in the future to go off on these kinds of frolics and then expect to sell them.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  Such anti-corruption instincts.

Steve Schindler:  It’s a little hard to reconcile with the fact that they were acquiring these things for themselves. It wasn’t like they were saying, oh, just give them back.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  Well, they wouldn’t have given them back to the Turks.

Steve Schindler:  They shouldn’t have done that, but we’ll take them at a discount.

Alexander Herman:  I go through it in the book, and I guess you’ve read that part, but the select committee hearings are a thing of beauty, I think, because you realize there would have been dozens of select committees at the time looking at all sorts of issues around the war against Napoleon and all the rest of it. Here you have this little governmental committee doing its business, examining witnesses. They brought Elgin in. They scrutinized him. They brought in all his agents who were in Britain at the time. Lusieri was still back in Athens, so not him, but the others. They grilled them, and I thought, that’s quite an impressive feat. They asked questions about title, about whether he acquired title, about whether he acquired it in personal capacity, or as we said, because he was the ambassador of Great Britain. They looked at all that, and then the conclusion in the select committee report was that they should be acquired from him, but only for 35,000 pounds. Then they looked at other things around whether these were genuine artifacts, and how much they should be worth, and they brought in artists and experts and that kind of thing. It was quite a thorough job, and then that was the report that then went to the House of Commons, and then the House of Commons had a full debate, with both sides being represented.You had on one side people calling Elgin a thief, referring to this as spoliation, actually using that term, which we think of as a very modern term, but they were using it over 200 years ago. And on the other side, people saying it was a rescue operation, that the Turks were barbaric, and they would have destroyed these pieces otherwise. So a lot of the things we still hear today in the restitution. It’s amazing, which is great in a way, because it’s very familiar, but at the same time a little bit dispiriting, because you think, how far have we actually come in 220 years?

Katie Wilson-Milne:  Although, just an irrelevant distinction is that this debate is happening among the lawmakers in the UK. Athens is not— Greeks are not represented there. Presumably, the Ottomans could care less, so they’re not there, they’re not involved. So this is just a debate among the lawmakers who have free rein to take this stuff at no cost, and yet they’re going to these lengths to debate whether it’s just. It was just somewhat perplexing. You’re right, impressive and just shows how little I understand the British Empire. So they acquire these works for the British state—

Alexander Herman:  Technically, it’s the trustees of the British Museum acquired them from Elgin. With funds? Yeah, legally, that’s the route they took, because the trustees own the collection of the British Museum, so they’re the ones who had to pay for it.

Steve Schindler:  At the time, had the British Museum been in operation for a long time?

Alexander Herman:  So the British Museum was founded by statute in 1753. It opened its doors in 1759. So it had been around for about 50 years. It was kind of cobbled together through different private collections, mainly from aristocrats that had been amalgamated and then purchased by the state through the trustees. But it hadn’t really gotten its great pièce de résistance until the so-called Elgin collection came into the stores. So it was that moment, 1816, after the debate in Parliament, after the vote, the Act was passed by Parliament, that these pieces became, in a sense, the centerpiece for the British Museum. This is before, obviously, the Rosetta Stone had arrived and been translated. This is before all those great Egyptian, you know, pharaonic sculptures had come, or the Assyrian bulls and all of that sort of thing. So the Parthenon Marbles or the Elgin Marbles, as they would have said, they were the first to really transform that museum. So they played an important role in that early 19th century development of British aesthetics and British cultural sensibility.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  And what was the mission of the British Museum then? I mean, we’re all familiar with the term the Universal Museum and vaguely what that means, but I also think of the British Museum as being rather stuffy and aristocratic itself, but in reality it was quite a remarkable enlightenment idea that this museum was founded not for wealthy people who had their own private collections, but so that regular people of every level of class and privilege could have access to the great objects of the world. So I guess that seemed relevant to me in thinking about the context of this and maybe now the debates we’re having about whether the British Museum should give these objects back to Greece.

Alexander Herman:  Yeah, definitely. I mean, even if you look at the first act that established the British Museum in 1753, it talks about free public access to the collection, which was remarkable at the time, unheard of at the time, and that the collection should be kept, and this is what becomes controversial, for public use for all posterity. So already they had this idea, which we talk about with museums all the time today, that they’re supposed to be there for the public good, but also keep a collection whole and entire and not start removing parts or selling them off or whatever it might be. So they had that built in from the very beginning in 1753, and it’s caused problems down the road, but the goals were definitely in line with the Enlightenment ideals, and they were very admirable.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  When did the British, we understand the British Museum, like many European museums actually, is forbidden by statute from deaccessioning items from its collection with some small exceptions that may not apply here, probably don’t. So when does that rule come into place? Is that from the very beginning, that it is forbidden by statute for the trustees to deaccession anything, and so why even think about it? Because those claims can’t be entertained, or is that later?

Alexander Herman:  Yeah, so from 1753, I mean, they wouldn’t have used the modern terms that we’re familiar with, but the statute refers to keeping the collection whole and entire for public use for all posterity. So that was generally interpreted as what we would call no deaccessioning or no disposing of items. That eventually changed. The current act is the 1963 British Museum Act, and that’s more explicit, and it doesn’t use the term deaccession, it refers to disposal. So it says the trustees must keep the collection together without disposing of objects, with some exceptions as you say, Katie, but they’re for very narrow things like duplicates, unfit objects, objects that have become useless, and then there have been a couple of other changes to the law in relation to Nazi-looted art and human remains. But generally speaking, it would be impossible for the trustees of the British Museum to deaccession big important parts of the collection, like the Parthenon sculptures.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  One dynamic I found interesting in the modern, you know, I guess British official position on this is that the government will say, “I’m sorry, it’s nothing, this is really not our matter. It’s for the trustees. You know, it’s just, we don’t own these things.” The trustees go to the trustees and the trustees will say, “I’m so sorry, like, we can’t even consider this because the British government hasn’t passed a law that allows us to consider this.” And there’s just this complete inability for any accountable actor to come to the table because there’s just this finger pointing, which isn’t exactly inaccurate, but it’s just silly, right? So I find that the statements from the British prime ministers about this to be disingenuous because of course they know that the British Museum’s policy on this is entirely dependent on the governmental position.

Steve Schindler:  Right. And I think as you point out in the book, it has sort of inhibited actual progress or any kind of discussion about how to try to resolve the impasse between Greece and Great Britain. Maybe this is a good time to sort of move to when was the first sort of claim that was made by modern Greece to have these marbles returned? And I know you talk at length about the Greek minister of culture, Melina Mercouri, who seems like a fascinating person.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  A very glamorous person.

Steve Schindler:  I hadn’t known that much about her, but maybe take us through the sort of history of the sort of the first real demand for restituting these objects.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  I mean, how does this become a dispute?

Alexander Herman:  Very good question. So there were, I guess we could call them pleas or requests for some form of returning or transferring some pieces over the decades, starting from not long after Greece’s independence in 1832. They asked back in the 1840s for some of the freezes from another building, which is the Temple of Athena Nike on the Acropolis, because they were rebuilding that after the War of Independence with Turkey. And there was a claim in the 1890s from the mayor of Athens. So there were kind of discussions about this. It was obviously contentious, even going back to the 19th century. There were articles written on both sides in the British press, so there was always a controversy. I mean, we haven’t mentioned, but probably the one who started it was the great romantic poet Lord Byron. He wrote scathing verse, attacking his fellow aristocrat Lord Elgin, famously in—

Steve Schindler:  Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, yes. Speaking to an English major, yes.

Alexander Herman:  Oh yeah, so you would have read that.

Steve Schindler:  Well, we read Lord Byron.

Alexander Herman:  You could probably recite it to us.

Steve Schindler:  I probably can. I won’t do it. But also, and then Keats, the sort of, you know, also on looking, on viewing the Elgin Marbles. It was a fascinating topic. I still remember reading those poems, and it’s just, they were so overworked, as of course British romantic poets were, to think that—

Katie Wilson-Milne:  How personal it felt.

Steve Schindler:  It was very personal.

Steve Schindler:  But it is kind of interesting, because Lord Byron is from the same social class, of course, as Lord Elgin, and they really sort of did go at it—

Katie Wilson-Milne:  On this topic, right?

Katie Wilson-Milne:  Or was it— I don’t know their history, other than what you say in the book. So I don’t know if they had a general animosity, but it is interesting that this was such a, you know, an emotional, combative issue among British aristocrats. Again, we’re not even talking about the Greeks. We’re just talking about very privileged people in the UK, feeling so strongly about this. And I wonder, Alex, which is another topic, is this part of a moment in Britain where, I don’t know if it’s because of just the Enlightenment or because of where we are in the empire or the war with France, where cultural property itself is for the very first time becoming kind of a moral issue and that people both, because they recognize sort of the academic historical importance of cultural property, but also the moral tethering of this cultural property to national identity, that this becomes this hot issue in a way that in another moment in time it may not have been?

Alexander Herman:  Absolutely. And if you think of what’s happening at the same time in 1815 after the end of the Napoleonic Wars and all of the hundreds of works of art, sculptures, manuscripts that were looted by the French, and those are starting to be returned right around the same time that Parliament is debating the acquisition of the Elgin Marbles.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  And returned by Britain kind of as the head of the allied forces, not just returned by the French, returned by the UK.

Steve Schindler:  Yeah, I think that was a really fascinating chapter in your book, because I don’t think I had ever put— I certainly hadn’t put that together. And even there was, was it Lord Wellington, or one of the British?

Katie Wilson-Milne:  Sounds right.

Alexander Herman:  Yeah, the Duke of Wellington who defeated Napoleon. I mean, he’s a very stern figure and quite, you know, he became Prime Minister as a Conservative later on. So he’s certainly not a sort of liberal restitutionist by makeup, but he really believed in that, in returning items to what he called their ancient seat, you know, like where they were, where they were from, where they belonged. And that was the policy that they imposed in 1815.

Steve Schindler:  And the other piece of it, too, I think, which I also found fascinating, was that there was, of course, because Napoleon was defeated, there was some momentum to try to take things that were French and, you know, out of France to the victors. And there was pushback on the British side to say, no, don’t remove anything from Paris that, you know, is French.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  Again, this British effort at anti-corruption inconsistency is just, I mean, it’s humorous in a way, because we know the context of the empire that exists at that time, but, you know, maybe, yeah.

Steve Schindler:  Right, sorry, all this was going on at the same time as the marbles were being sort of taken into the British collection.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  But I guess, maybe that’s why they had to have this long parliamentary process, because they needed to convince themselves that this was legal and fair, given the other commitments at the time. But yeah, that’s really fascinating.

Alexander Herman:  I mean, it’s a really good point just at how things were crystallizing in terms of cultural heritage, cultural property, even if they didn’t use those terms, and in a sense, we’re the descendants of all of that now 200 years later, because that was starting to come together at that time, very much so.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  And does that become, it’s my impression, that becomes a real priority of the British Empire, you know, starting at that time throughout the empire, at least in policy, if not in practice, that cultural property is to be respected and protected.

Alexander Herman:  What’s interesting is that after 1815, because of all the returns of the Napoleonic loot, there generally was a practice amongst at least European states that they wouldn’t loot one another’s cultural or religious goods or private property. That was usually the practice of warfare as between European nations. However, it didn’t apply or they didn’t see it as applying to non-European nations, hence the double standard. You know, the punitive expeditions against China in 1860, against Abyssinia in 1868, the Benin Expedition in 1897 and so on. So there was a real, you could say, hypocrisy or immorality in the position, because there’s really no evidence that I’ve come across of any kind of looting as between European states after 1815. I mean, going up to Hitler in the Second World War. There was a kind of a respect for that, some exceptions in the First World War in Belgium, but generally speaking not the kind of massive takings that Napoleon had done. But there’s that double standard in there, because obviously the Brits weren’t respecting that principle when they went overseas.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  Yeah, it’s a really important point. Did the British at the time, around 1811 to 1816, did they see Greece under the Ottomans as being European? And so in that sense, it was much more important that these norms be followed? Or was it seen as another sort of potential colony of an empire? I’m just wondering why the Greek case was so important. I can imagine that it was because—

Alexander Herman:  Yeah, I mean that grew until, you know, Greece kickstarted its War of Independence in 1821. Britain was a staunch ally of the Greek rebels as they first were, and then of the new state in 1832. And there are amazing things that I came across in the research of letters written by the British ambassador in the 1820s, so long after Elgin, to the Ottoman Turks saying, look, we know the Greeks are trying to rebel against you. Some of them are holed up on the Acropolis right now. Do not bombard it. Do not attack it. Make sure that the nations of the world rejoice at this great work of art, and please do not put it in the crosshairs. Unfortunately, the Ottomans didn’t listen to that, and the Parthenon was damaged even worse during the War of Independence. But it’s an interesting point in history where the Western nations were supporting Greece. They did see them, as you say, Katie, as kind of the originators of European culture, and so they supported them. They encouraged the connection with the classical past as well, which the new state then took on and took very seriously. So that was all kind of crystallizing around the 1820s, 1830s. So I think that’s part of the reason why, when we come back to the Parthenon, why that iconic monument stands so tall in the Western imagination, in Greece, obviously, but also beyond.

Steve Schindler:  And so maybe that takes us to, since we’re lawyers and we’re sitting here trying to figure out, what are the legal claims that have been made by Greece against Britain for the return of the marbles and your view about them, which you go through in detail in your book?

Alexander Herman:  Well, in many ways, it was the result of some of the historical developments in Greece in the 20th century. And that’s one of the things I wanted to focus on in the book, is to look at the claim, which eventually the claim from Greece first came together in 1983, the first official claim. But I think it’s important to look at what predated that in terms of Greek history. Because Greece, in a sense, it was occupied by the Nazis, they were liberated. They then had a very brutal civil war right at the end of World War II. So in a sense, World War II didn’t end in 1945 in Greece, it extended beyond that. Then they had a dictatorship by what were called the Colonels between 1967 and 1973. So they were effectively, it was almost like an internal occupation, very autocratic. And then they ousted the Colonels, they also ousted their monarchy in 1973, they became a republic, a democracy. They joined the European Union in 1981. So it was really, this was Greece’s kind of resurgence. And if you think of their history with democracy in the ancient world, this was quite an important moment.

And then just on the kind of edge of that, you have Melina Mercouri, this very glamorous— she was a film star, she became culture minister, her English was very good, she was obviously very committed to this cause, and she made it the hallmark of her administration in the culture ministry. And she brought the claim in 1983 to Britain. She often visited Britain, she gave these amazing interviews with British television where she talked about how these were the essence of Greekness and it was totally wrong and unjust for the pieces to be kept imprisoned in this northern climate in the middle of this very grey room in the British Museum. And there are scenes of her caressing the marbles at the British Museum. I don’t even know how they allowed her to do that.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  I know, I read that in your book and I thought that’s a security flaw.

Alexander Herman:  Crying, you know, she’s crying.

Steve Schindler:  I think she and Lord Byron would have gotten along quite well.

Alexander Herman:  Oh, like great friends. And so she really, you know, transformed the dispute from something that was kind of rumbling along. There were some Philhellenes who thought it would be nice if the marbles went back into basically front and center of the cultural discourse in Britain and in Greece, and in a sense in the wider world as well.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  So what is the legal case? What’s Greece’s legal argument here? And obviously, it’s very important to us to make clear that there’s a connected, but also separate moral and ethical argument, which I find extremely compelling and doesn’t need to depend on the legality of this. But assuming that Greece has made both legal and ethical claims, could you lay those out?

Alexander Herman:  Yeah, so the claim in 1983 was a state-to-state diplomatic claim, so it didn’t go to, say, the International Court of Justice or some other body, and it was rejected the next year. The basis of the claim, which was set out, was that the pieces should be reunified. I mentioned half of what remains is in Athens. Roughly half is at the British Museum, so you want to reunify the pieces. You want to put them ideally back to or close to the original monument. At the first stages, they thought that the pieces could actually be put back on the Parthenon. Then they realized they would have to go into a nearby museum, which is now the Acropolis Museum, and that these pieces were stolen. I mean, the Greeks will use that word, even if that’s a fairly loose approximation of what happened legally on the ground, but they’ll say they were stolen. They’ll say that this happened during occupation of Greece.

00:54:14.100 –> 00:54:28.940

Alexander Herman:  They’ll refer to the Ottoman rule, even though, as we know, Katie, it lasted 350 years before Elgin’s men showed up, that they consider that, at least in their national memory, as an occupation, as a brutal occupation by a foreign power. So that’s the claim, and it’s maybe couched in some legal or legalistic terms, but it’s effectively a moral claim.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  Right. And I guess it is relevant, at least from a moral perspective, that it was not Greek nationals, as they, I guess, understand themselves today, who gave permission to Elgin to take these objects. It was the Turks, who they thought— who they still think presided over a brutal regime, you know, for hundreds of years. And that is a dark time in Greek history to them. So it’s meaningless from the Greek perspective that somehow Elgin got official Ottoman permission, and it was legal under Ottoman law. That’s irrelevant to them. Whereas to the British, at least the British government at the time, that was very relevant.

Alexander Herman:  Yeah, exactly. And I mean that in a way, that’s the crux of the argument today even, that from the side of those who are against returning the marbles, traditionally that was the British Museum’s position, although they’ve nuanced that position more recently. The view is that these were legally acquired. You know, Elgin had the paperwork. They went through the parliamentary process in Britain. They were scrutinized and examined at the time. And there’s no actual legal case. There’s no legal case to be brought. And as a result, these still remain at the British Museum and they’re vested in the trustees of the British Museum. So that’s obviously the argument on one side, but I think you’re right. I mean, morally, it doesn’t seem right that pieces could be taken when a country was really on the verge of its independence. I mean, you can look backwards and say, well, it was 350 years of Ottoman rule. So in a sense, it had become an official part of the Ottoman Empire a long time before.

But if you just tilt the telescope the other direction, you realize that about 10 years after the final crates of the marbles left the port in Piraeus, the Greeks would be kickstarting their revolution and their war of independence on the Acropolis in 1821. So if you look at it that way, it does feel morally problematic that these pieces left when they did. And as part of that independence movement, cultural property was a central component from the very beginning.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  You know, it’s not that this just later occurs to the Greek government, they should care about it and it gives them some leverage. It’s essential to the identity of the nationalist movement in Greece and to the independence movement from the start. And then that continues. So as you say in the book, it’s such a difficult dispute, because it’s so emotional and moral and ethically weighted on one side in the ways we just described and are intuitive, I think. And then you have, certainly not everyone in Britain, in fact it seems that when people are polled, most people in Britain support returning the marbles. But the official position of the museum and the government, at least for most of this time, was a very legalistic one. You know, just like, they’re not debating the same points. And how can a resolution be resolved when both are true, but you’re not debating on the same, you’re not debating the same issues?

Alexander Herman:  Yeah, exactly. And that, I mean, that’s, that’s what’s really been at the heart of the dispute, that kind of institutional disconnect between the two sides, where one is kind of law and order and then the other is art and emotion, and trying to connect those two, which is, you know, that’s the hope, is that that is what is happening now and they’re in negotiations and they’re discussing a way forward. But it’s a very narrow path to victory, in a sense, to connect those two, sorry to borrow a political term, but to connect those two sides. And there has to be some kind of recognition for it ever to work, for each party to recognize at the very least the validity of the other side’s position. Because if you don’t do that, then you’ll be talking across one another, just like you were saying.

Steve Schindler:  Right, yeah. And it’s, I think also, you know, there is the whole debate between the sort of internationalist position that you referred to, and Professor Merryman, who was writing about this in the 90s, I think that somehow these cultural artifacts belong to the world and to humanity and that they don’t necessarily belong to a particular people over the course of time. And I, you know, there’s, I think, even if you credit that point of view just sort of generally, I think you have to look at the specifics of the objects in question, the same way that museums, you know, have decided to repatriate like the Benin bronzes, right? Because they are particular objects that were sort of ripped out of their context. And I think for me, too, the marbles are, they come from the sort of central sort of piece of architecture and history of ancient Greece. It’s not just some random sort of objects and sculptures that have been moved around the world over the course of time. These are central really to Greek identity. And so, and they’re not central to British identity, to British identity and history. So to me, it just seems, yeah, like they should be returned and there should be a way forward.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  I guess the museum’s response to that, as Alex was saying, is that the British Museum is not a museum about British history. So I don’t think there’d be disagreement that they’re not central to British history. And the point of the British Museum is to present this, the authoritative sort of universalist global human history that it can through all these incredible objects that have come from other places. So it’s still so problematic, but that argument probably isn’t one that’s relevant to the British Museum itself, since it doesn’t see itself that way. And it isn’t that way, to be fair. It’s not a history of Britain.

Steve Schindler:  Well, do you think, Alex, I know that this has been sort of talked about, is there any kind of fear from the British point of view that this is just opening the floodgates, that essentially, then, that kind of opens the door for everything that’s in the British Museum collection to be demanded to be returned to somewhere, and that’s sort of the end of the Museum. I mean, that seems very, to me, a little exaggerated, but it’s a fear that I’ve heard at least talked about.

Alexander Herman:  Oh, yes. You hear that a lot in Britain. Certainly from what I would say is the establishment. I mean, that’s generally the establishment view. Traditionally, it was the British Museum would say things like that in their official statements. And the current government in the UK, which is a conservative right-wing government, they’ve made no secret of that view, of that worry of opening the floodgates. I mean, I don’t know if that’s a reasonable position to have because I think floodgates arguments are usually as a judge, a former judge once said, the refuge of the scoundrel. If you’re in court, if one of you are in court arguing that, oh, if we do justice on this issue, then we might have to do justice on other issues. I mean, that’s not really a strong reasoned position. I think part of it is a fear of the unknown, why that argument is used, and it’s a fear of letting up. And I actually think there’s something quite particular to the British establishment and its view on having lost an empire, if you think about it, and having gone through the throes of giving up, of releasing territory in that case. And so that’s why I think the dispute over the Elgin Marbles, which most people from most countries would probably say, yeah, realistically, those should just be returned to Greece. I think they touch something very close to the bone in Britain, not amongst the general population, which as you said on the whole supports return, but amongst the establishment, which is a very particular slice of British society.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  You said something I thought very insightful in the book and that Greece sees these objects as defining its national identity and its centuries-long cultural heritage. But that is because these marbles came to be at a time where Greece sees its history at its height, at its highest prestige, and this is thousands of years ago. But at the same time, they’re fighting with the British about actions by Elgin in the 19th century, much more recently, but also at the time of Britain’s maybe height of control, power, and prestige. And so we’re arguing about very different time periods, but for each country, this touches upon the moment in history where they were, quote, unquote, the greatest or the most relevant. And so that is challenging, right? That they’re both implicated in their self-definition in a way that is really emotional and not well-suited to technical legal analysis.

Alexander Herman:  Exactly. And if there is a way forward, I think it has to be based on a recognition of what you just said, that each is partly nostalgic for its own past greatness, but is there some way that the two sides can come together and build something new going forward? But I think it’s hard. I think it’s hard on both sides. And I think from the Greek perspective, they tend not to recognize the sensitivities on the British side, which we just talked, you know, the loss of empire, the kind of, you could say, relative decline, just in terms of world importance. And on the British side, certainly the British Museum and the government, a lack of empathy for the long Greek plight living under occupation, whether it was the Ottoman rule or Nazi occupation or the colonels or what have you, there’s sort of a lack of sensitivity when dealing with this particular issue and a lack of recognition of how the marbles themselves are like a microcosm of that painful history. There needs to be a kind of a good, I don’t know, psychiatry session with the two of them, just kind of head to head with a great shrink and just work all this out and put the problems of the past in the past and then move forward on some great new project.

Steve Schindler:  I think, Alex, this is a position that you can aspire to.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  Yes. You’ve set yourself up for this.

Alexander Herman:  Yeah, global restitution.

Steve Schindler:  A sort of mediator psychologist.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  Has the Greek position stayed fairly consistent over time? I mean, you say in the book, it’s quite absolutist, right? It’s not they want all of them back and they own them. And that’s the position. Has that been consistent since 83? Or has there been some change in the Greek perspective on this?

Alexander Herman:  There were some explorations in the early 2000s. So there was a big moment leading up to the Athens Olympics, which was in 2004. And so there was great desire on the Greek side to have the marbles reunified, so they could show them off for the world audience. And so they started to get a little bit creative. And they said, well, let’s talk about a loan and let’s put title aside. They wanted to put the legal question of ownership aside and have some kind of agreement that was effectively a long-term slash permanent loan. I think at the time that was too much for the British Museum. Now they’re talking probably along similar lines, but the official Greek position, I mean, if you look at their press releases, if you look at the statements from the Culture Minister and so on, is still these belong to Greece, we do not recognize title of the British Museum, and we think that they should be restituted. So it’s, I mean, that might just be a public position to start the ball rolling, so to speak, but it’s quite absolutist, as you say. And it’s hard to negotiate when you have such a strict position certainly a political position like that one on one side.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  How is the position of the British Museum changed over time?

Alexander Herman:  Well, it’s softened a little bit over the last couple of years. The chair of trustees is a man named George Osborne, who was a politician. He was Chancellor of the Exchequer, which is basically like finance minister in Britain, starting in 2010. He brought in austerity after the financial crisis. So in the cultural sector, people treat him with a little bit of suspicion. But he did say publicly, and he said this in 2022 and he said it since, that he thinks there’s a deal that can be done, that he doesn’t want to force the Greeks to accept something they’re not willing to accept, which presumably relates to title and the acknowledgement of title on the trustees of the British Museum. And they’re now talking institutionally about a Parthenon partnership. That’s how the British Museum now phrases it. So they’ve abandoned a lot of the aggressive, passive-aggressive sort of defensive stances that they took in the past. And it seems as though they’re willing to negotiate, but it still has to stay within the confines of the British Museum Act. So it means there won’t be a permanent return of everything overnight. It will have to be some kind of halfway position, some kind of compromise where some of the pieces go back maybe for a long period, but not forever. And then they’ll have to figure out how to build a strong relationship out of that and maybe more things can come after that.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  That’s a pretty big change on the British side to be willing to discuss that. Do they have a willing partner on the Greek side to negotiate something like that?

Alexander Herman:  Well, what’s happened now is the Prime Minister of Greece, whose name is Kyriakos Mitsotakis, first elected about four years ago and then he was re-elected just last summer. And he’s quite a dynamic, vigorous, reforming figure. He’s center-right, but he wants to improve the economic situation in Greece. He wants to clear up issues around public financing, and so on. But he’s taken to heart this particular issue and he believes very strongly in what he calls reunifying the Parthenon Marbles. And he was on British television on the BBC in November. And he said, I don’t see this as an ownership issue, I see this as a reunification issue, which is a very nice sounding political statement, what that actually means. When you’re trying to hammer out a deal, it’s unclear. So in terms of Osborne on the side of the British Museum and Mitsotakis on the side of Greece, there seem to be two individuals, politically they’re probably quite aligned actually, roughly the same age, dynamic figures, etc. So if there’s any kind of deal that could be arranged, it would be between the two of them and the people around them.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  And I guess we didn’t, I don’t think we asked you this, but what is the traditional institutionalist British response to the Greek demands? What has that been over time? Until now, I understand that’s changing.

Alexander Herman:  Yeah, I mean these were legally acquired, that the Greek claim is based on nationalism and as we’ve said, they’ve recognized this for a long time, the British Museum is a great international venue, 6 million people a year, it’s free entry still to this day, so they make a big deal about that, whereas if you go to the Acropolis Museum, you have to pay 5 or 10 euros depending on the time of year. So that kind of arguments around accessibility, that these pieces are better understood, better looked at in the context of global collections and by more people at the British Museum. So that was kind of the traditional argument that they would run. They’re still saying those sorts of things, but they’re nuancing it a little bit by saying we’re open to a Parthenon partnership with the Greeks, which I think, I mean, personally, I think that’s a step in the right direction. Whether that will lead to a settlement is another question.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  I find one of the, I guess, arguments that fell by the wayside that the British have always made about these objects is that they’re better cared for at the British Museum or British institutions where there’s the staff and the resources and they can be preserved. And as you know, explained in your book, actually the British Museum is woefully under-resourced. It’s falling apart in some places. And yeah, they’re steadfastly committed to free entry. I guess that’s required by law to Alex, right?

Alexander Herman:  Yeah, yeah. And now it’s been government policy now for 20 years for all the national museums in the UK to be free entry. That’s great. It’s a beautiful idea. It’s also meant that government has basically frozen the funding at 2001 levels and hasn’t increased it. So it’s meant that curators are underpaid. People work for free constantly. The roofs are leaking. They’re not able to make serious acquisitions anymore. They can’t compete with the Met and museums in the Middle East and China and so on. So they are slipping behind, not just because of the free entry, but it’s government neglect, plus they can’t get money from ticket sales. So all of that is kind of the perfect storm.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  You can’t promise free entry and then not fund. So do you feel hopeful that we have perhaps some movement towards resolution in our near future?

Alexander Herman:  Well, I think the move that the British Museum has made over the last couple of years has been very positive. Actually, I think it’s a very ethically sound position that they now have, because if you look at the ICOM code of ethics and other codes of ethics, it always talks about engaging with communities and countries of origin and being open to dialogue and discussion around these issues, which the British Museum was never open to that sort of discussion until about two years ago. So I think they’re in a sounder, ethical place, even just having that discussion, even if it doesn’t lead to restitution. And I think there could be some maybe small steps made in the right direction, small loans going back and forth, maybe cooperation, joint exhibitions, that kind of thing. And they could build a solid relationship between the Acropolis Museum in Athens and the British Museum in London. And then on the basis of that strong relationship, they might be able to do something even greater. So I am hopeful, but also quite realistic. I realize there are some very difficult gaps that need to be bridged, like the point about title and recognition of title and how each side sees the history and how they recognize the validity of the other side’s position. So there’s still a long way to go, but I think small steps and hopefully they’ll get there.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  This is also the part of a real moment in Europe where there’s this voluntary return of, we’ll say, colonial objects to their countries of origin. And it’s not because they weren’t legally acquired at the time under whatever the relevant laws were. It’s because there’s a recognition that there was an imbalance of control and power and that it’s not morally correct. And I think, I’m hopeful, it’s a very European and we don’t have a parallel here in the United States where so many of these issues are individual claimants and individual possessors in dispute and suing each other, because we don’t have this huge state colonial takings or sort of aristocratic collections that came to the museums in these circumstances. So when we talk about the US, it’s very different, but I found it very moving and inspiring to see France and Germany, and certainly it’s not enough and it’s not perfect, but recognize that these are not legal issues, right? They are probably legally in possession of most of these objects that are claimed by, certainly we hear about former colonies in Africa now in the Benin Bronzes and numerous other countries which have made diplomatic claims based on morality and ethics. And so much of this revolves outside the law, and the law is just not an adequate system to deal with what is always right. So it seems like maybe the British Museum’s new willingness to negotiate this is part of this European moment in the last few years where there’s just more recognition and willingness to move on ethical and moral grounds.

Alexander Herman:  Yeah, definitely. And I mean, that’s only growing because we have coming up this year the law from the French that Macron is introducing that’s going to introduce that in France, Switzerland, and Ireland have created new panels that will look at doing that. So I completely agree, and I think that’s only going to continue over the years to come. he British Museum is hopefully going to, you know, take a lead and move forward on something. They need to modernize the institution for financial reasons in terms of just the structure of the place, but also in terms of this very important question, which they’ve been dealing with for 200 years. So they need to get in front of it, and hopefully that’s the direction that they’re going in as well.

Steve Schindler:  Well, that seems like a good place to end. This was fantastic, Alex, and we’ll obviously, when we post the episode, we’ll have a link to your book, and hopefully people will buy it.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  Yes, thank you so much.

Alexander Herman:  Thanks very much, that was a lot of fun.

Steve Schindler:  And that’s it for today’s podcast. Please subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts, and send us feedback at And if you like what you hear, give us a five-star rating. We are also featuring the original music of Chris Thompson. And finally, we want to thank our fabulous producer, Jackie Santos, for making us sound so good.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  Until next time, I’m Katie Wilson-Milne. 

Steve Schindler:  And I’m Steve Schindler bringing you The Art Law Podcast, a podcast exploring the places where art intersects with and interferes with the law.

Katie Wilson-Milne:  The information provided in this podcast is not intended to be a source of legal advice. You should not consider the information provided to be an invitation for an attorney-client relationship, should not rely on the information as legal advice for any purpose, and should always seek the legal advice of competent counsel in the relevant jurisdiction.

Music by Chris Thompson. Produced by Jackie Santos.