Why it was incorrect for Downing Street to say the return of the Elgin Marbles is a only a matter for the British Museum

17th November 2021

Yesterday the prime minister of the United Kingdom met the prime minister of Greece and, according to a Downing Street media statement, the following happened:

“Finally, Prime Minister Mitsotakis raised the issue of the Parthenon Sculptures.

“The Prime Minister said that he understood the strength of feeling of the Greek people on this issue, but reiterated the UK’s longstanding position that this matter is one for the trustees of the British Museum.

“The leaders agreed that this issue in no way affects the strength of the UK-Greece partnership.”


The second quoted sentence is striking for two reasons.

First, that is actually not the UK’s longstanding position”.

According to the very same prime minister of the United Kingdom earlier this year, there was another “firm, longstanding position” – that the government itself had a view:

“The UK government has a firm, longstanding position on the sculptures, which is that they were legally acquired by Lord Elgin under the appropriate laws of the time and have been legally owned by the British Museum’s trustees since their acquisition.”

(Quoted here.)

Perhaps the real “firm, longstanding position” is that the prime minister and the Downing street press department make it up as they go along.


But the second thing about yesterday’s statement is even more striking.

That Downing Street thinks this is a matter for the British Museum.

Yet the British Museum has strict legal limits to what it can do to dispose of any of its collection.

(Yes, the legal term here is ‘to dispose’.)

In essence: as the law stands, the trustees cannot simply decide to send the marbles back to Greece.

It would need substantial parliamentary, and thereby governmental, intervention and approval.


A couple of days ago on this blog, I set out why there significant doubts that these artefacts entered the British Museum collection lawfully in the first place.

Here the stock line-to-take of the British Museum is that “Lord Elgin’s activities were thoroughly investigated by a Parliamentary Select Committee in 1816 and found to be entirely legal” is not true.

This is not true.

There was no thorough investigation – and a parliamentary committee cannot determine or verify title anyway.

And no original legal instrument conveying the ownership of the marbles (or any other permission) to Elgin has ever been produced (and may never have existed); the only documents that were produced at the time of the acquisition were ‘translations’ that appear to scholars to be implausible and possibly fraudulent; and the parliamentary committee that approved the acquisition did not see any original documentation.

Put simply: there was – and is – no original legal instrument that said Elgin owned the marbles and/or that he took them away lawfully.

And if Elgin never owned them, then he had no right of ownership to pass on to anyone else, including the British Museum.

However: after two hundred or so years, it is far too late for anyone to legally challenge the acquisition in court – by reason of limitation legislation and otherwise.

Even if not lawfully acquired, the marbles are now part of the collection.


Now to what the trustees of the British Museum can and cannot decide.

The British Museum Act 1963 (and its predecessor legislation) provides that objects can be disposed of in certain defined situations:

The marbles are not duplicates; they are from (long) before 1850 and not made out of printed matter; and are not useless because of deterioration.

Even clause 5(1)(c) does not help – for there is no doubt as to the merit of the objects and are of interest to students.

Section 5 of the British Museum Act 1963 means that the museum cannot simply give them to the Greek government.

The only way round section 5 is by new primary legislation – and this has been done (at least) twice for other artefacts.

Section 47 of the Human Tissues Act 2004 provides that human remains can be repatriated.

And the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009 provides a power for museums and art galleries to return certain cultural objects on grounds relating to events occurring during the Nazi era.

(The informative British Museum policy on disposing of objects is here.)


So unless there is new specific legislation such as the 2004 and 2009 Acts, the trustees of the British Museum have no legal power or right to dispose of the Elgin Marbles in any way, other than in accordance with section 5 of the 1963 Act.

The trustees may form views and make recommendations – and a statement saying that the marbles should go to be shown in Athens could certainly be made.

But they cannot do this themselves.

The return of the marbles is therefore not just a matter for the trustees of the British Museum.

Downing Street got the law wrong.


If there was a decision by the trustees of the British Museum to return the marbles to Greece, then it would be for the parliament to enact another new exception to section 5.

And parliament could not do that in the face of government opposition – it would need government support.

And so it is a matter for parliament and government.

Downing Street not only got the law wrong but also the overall position.

The government itself would need to decide.

The matter is not for the trustees, it is for the prime minister too.



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Why it was incorrect for Downing Street to say the return of the Elgin Marbles is a only a matter for the British Museum