Archaeology Odyssey 1:2, Spring 1998
Elgin Marbles Debate

Leave the Marbles Where They Are!

By John Henry Merryman

The publication of “Thinking About the Elgin Marbles” (Michigan Law Review, vol. 85 [1985]) confirmed John Henry Merryman’s status as a leading authority on cultural property matters. Merryman is Sweitzer Professor of Law at Stanford University and one of the founders of the International Journal of Cultural Property. When not trying to figure out who owns what, Merryman spends his time playing decent jazz piano and bad golf.

The preservation and enjoyment of world culture and the fate of the world’s great museum collections are at stake in the debate over the Elgin Marbles. If the principle were established that works of foreign origin should be returned to their sources, the major Western museums will be drastically depleted.

The Greek case for the return of the Parthenon marbles has two parts. One is that the marbles were wrongly taken and have never belonged, legally or morally, to the British. The other is that even if the marbles legitimately became British property, they ought now to be returned to Greece.

In 1801, when the crucial transaction took place, Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire. According to international law of the time, the Ottomans had absolute legal authority over the Parthenon.

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