Should the so-called 'Elgin marbles' be returned to Greece?

Credit: On Assigment/ITV News

The arguments have been around ever since Lord Elgin scooped some of the world’s finest sculptures from around the Parthenon in Athens and shipped them back to Britain.  

Did he have permission from the Ottoman rulers of Athens, or was this looting? Should permission granted by an occupying power be worth anything anyway? Is there a moral duty to reunite one of the great works of classical antiquity?

For two centuries those arguments have been shouted back and forth between Athens and London in a dialogue of the deaf, but things just may be changing. 

The debate, which has raged on for years, has become more prominent recently. Credit: On Assignment/ITV News

There are two reasons that the Greeks believe a return of the Elgin – or Parthenon – Marbles to the museum beside the Acropolis may be getting nearer.

The first is that internationally the mood is changing over the restitution of artefacts and works of art controversially removed from their country of origin.

"Can you imagine if an American had so-called 'bought' the Eiffel tower from the Germans in 1941 and then, after the liberation of France, had said 'oh no, it's ours'."

Some of the Benin bronzes held in western museums are on their way back to Nigeria. The British Museum is under increasing pressure over artefacts removed from Cambodia and Ethiopia. And parts of the Parthenon marbles themselves have already been returned to Athens.

A fragment known as Diana’s foot was returned from a museum in Sicily earlier this year – technically referred to as "a deposit", effectively on loan, with the museum retaining official ownership.  

But the Italian government has now confirmed that they will never ask for the fragment to be sent back.

This is seen in Athens as a possible solution for the marbles – a long term loan, in which the British Museum retains legal ownership but accepts the sculptures will never come back to London. 

"The British Museum wants and needs these objects, and the world needs these objects, to remain here in London"

The trustees of the British Museum are not at this stage on board with the idea at all, it should be said.

They insist that "the fragmentariness is best appreciated, by having some of the sculptures in Athens, where they can be seen within the context of Athens and Greek culture and some of the sculptures in London, where they can be appreciated within the context of world history and culture".

The second development is the ability of modern scanning and laser technology to make replicas of the sculptures so close to the original that to the naked eye it would be near impossible to tell them apart. 

The British Museum retains legal ownership of the works. Credit: On Assignment/ITV News

Indeed, some of the statues on the Acropolis have already been replaced by such replicas in order that the originals can be moved inside to protect them from environmental damage.  

Once again the British Museum is not at all keen on the idea, but if a decision is ever made by the British government that the marbles should be sent back to Athens, these are things that could ease some of the controversy that would inevitably follow.

Watch James' On Assignment report on ITV tonight (Tuesday 31 May) at 22:45pm or afterwards on the ITV Hub

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