Mark Stephens, CBE, gave a Brown Bag Lunch presentation on Wednesday, November 8, at 12:15 pm. His talk was entitled “Greek Parthenon Marbles? Elgin Marbles? British Museum Marbles? Or will they become a Brexit Bribe?”

Lord Elgin acquired, or, some would say, purloined, the “Elgin” Marbles from the Parthenon‎ while Greece was under Ottoman rule. Greece has long sought the return of the Marbles from the museums in which they currently reside and has built a museum at the foot of the Parthenon Hill to house them. The question of the legality of their possession by the British Museum in London ‎raises profound legal questions as to whether artifacts that have been stolen or improperly acquired—albeit a long time ago—should and can lawfully be held by museums today. International law and UNESCO resolutions require the return of such works to their home country; in contrast, domestic British law precludes the deaccessioning of items held in public collections. Their deaccessioning could set a precedent for claims from other jurisdictions for return of other contested objects. A similar legal and moral question was addressed in the case against London’s Natural History Museum by Tasmanian Aboriginals who sought the return of remains of seventeen of their ancestors acquired in Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania). Many were illicitly acquired by the High British Official known as the “Protector of the Aboriginals.” His collection was later divided among public and university museums across the UK. American and Canadian indigenous peoples have also sought the return of their cultural artifacts from US museums and universities. In this talk, Stephens will discuss recent developments in these controversies. Most recently, he says, cultural artifacts and remains have been met with international realpolitik: the Greek government now seeks the return of the Parthenon Marbles as the ransom for consenting to favorable trading terms for the UK government to leave the European Union.

Mark Stephens is an expert on museum, art, and cultural heritage law. He practices at Howard Kennedy in London. He has advised the government of Greece in proceedings before the European Court of Human Rights.