Better Late Than Never? How Pope Francis Upped the Ante in Greece’s Negotiation with the British Museum Regarding the Repatriation of the Parthenon Marbles

Better Late Than Never? How Pope Francis Upped the Ante in Greece’s Negotiation with the British Museum Regarding the Repatriation of the Parthenon Marbles

Laura Phillipp Tucker

Did Lord Elgin know he was creating a centuries-long strife when he took The Parthenon Marbles—a collection of Ancient Greek sculptures—from the Parthenon in Athens to London in 1799?[1] The marble statues currently housed in the British Museum are from the 5th Century B.C. and were part of a “frieze that ran around the outer walls of the Parthenon temple on the Acropolis in Athens.”[2] They are referred to as the Elgin Marbles because the British diplomat Lord Elgin took the marbles from Athens in the early 19th Century when the Ottoman Turkish Empire ruled over modern day Greece.[3] Since 1983, Greece has repeatedly requested the British Museum “return . . . its Parthenon Marbles . . . and in 2009 built the Acropolis Museum in Athens” to house the marbles upon their return to Greece.[4]

The removal of the Parthenon Marbles to Britain has offered reporters ample fodder for news stories over the decades as Greece calls for the marbles’ return and subsequent negotiations between the countries end in continued stalemate.[5] Recently, George Osborne, the British Museum Chair, and Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Greek Prime Minister, publicly acknowledged the countries’ year-long negotiation over the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece.[6] Since reporters caught wind of “secretive” talks between the British Museum and Greece regarding the Elgin Marbles and the possibility of their return to the Acropolis, various news sources have been reporting weekly on the issue.[7] Perhaps this round of negotiations will be different, given Pope Francis’ recent return of three Greek marbles?

In December 2022, Pope Francis committed the Vatican Museum to returning three marble pieces originally taken from the Parthenon to Archbishop Ieronymos II, head of the Greek Orthodox Church.[8] However, instead of negotiating a long term loan, Pope Francis ultimately decided to donate the works.[9] The religious leaders held a private signing ceremony at the Vatican Museums earlier in March to finalize the donation ahead of the marbles’ return to Greece at the end of March, where another ceremony celebrated their return.[10]

The return of these three marble pieces is significant, though initially not without issues of ownership and final housing locations of the marbles. Because the Greek Orthodox Church received the donation from the Pope, the church initially owned the three marble pieces.[11] However, the Greek Orthodox Church promptly gave the three marble pieces to the Acropolis Museum when they arrived in Greece on March 24.[12] During the installation ceremony at the Acropolis Museum, the three marble pieces returned to their location of origin, replacing plaster replicas, which is more than can be said of the Parthenon frieze still residing in London.[13]

The head of the Vatican Museum’s Archaeology Department, Giandomenico Spinola urges the Pope’s donation of the three marbles “should be seen outside of any debate on the restitute of the marbles at the British Museum.”[14] And yet, “Greece has [explicitly] asked for others to imitate the Vatican Museums.”[15] Greek officials and news outlets have utilized the timing of the Pope’s donation to redirect public attention to the British Museum’s negotiation regarding the Parthenon marbles.[16]

If the British Museum wanted to return the Parthenon marbles to Greece, how would they do it? Despite international treaties like the 1970 UNESCO Convention providing a framework for Greece to repatriate the Parthenon marbles, [17] the U.K. has domestic legislation prohibiting the objects’ repatriation. The British Museum Act of 1963 prohibits the British Museum from returning works of art to other countries.[18] The National Heritage Act 1983 previously restricted the ability for museums to return works in their collections without Government involvement.[19] The Charities Act 2022, a proposed law, could be a potential route by which the British Museum returns the Parthenon Marbles to Greece, “if [museum] trustees feel a moral obligation to do so and gain approval from either the U.K. courts, Charity Commission or Attorney General.”[20] The new law provides additional opportunities for museums seeking to repatriate art and does not restrict the museum to merely engage in a “renewable cultural partnership,” which is effectively a long-term loan.[21] However, the British government delayed the bill, so it did not take effect in October 2022 as originally intended.[22]

To negotiate around the existing law prohibiting the return of the marbles and also sidestep the politics of the pending legislation, Osborne favors a “hybrid deal” or a win-win solution for returning the marbles to Greece.[23] It’s currently unclear exactly what this hybrid deal will entail and it could result in yet another stalemate between the countries. Some British politicians from different parties have backed The Parthenon Project which favors a long-term cultural partnership agreement.[24] This would involve a rotation of Greek masterpieces on display at the British Museum and the return of the Parthenon marbles back to Athens without an agreement regarding the ownership of the Parthenon Collection.[25]

However, just this month, U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak preemptively rejected any deal struck by the British Museum and Greek authorities.[26] Sunak, following in the footsteps of Liz Truss and Boris Johnson, believes the U.K. and the British Museum should continue housing and caring for the Parthenon Marbles.[27] The reinitiated negotiation between the British Museum and Greece has prompted criticism from conservative think tanks and historians who argue in favor of retaining the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum and do not shy away from advocating for continued housing of the marbles in London.[28] All this to say, the debate rages on.

So, will they, or won’t they? Has the pressure built up, especially in the wake of Pope Francis’ donation of Greek marbles to the Greek Orthodox Church, reaching a point at which the British Museum cannot in good faith continue to house and display the Parthenon’s frieze? Or will negotiations with Greece stall, yet again, as the parties fail to develop a mutually acceptable deal? Only time will tell.


[1] Janet Blake, International Cultural Heritage Law 3 (2015).

[2] Museum: London, Athens Could Share Parthenon Marbles in Deal, AP News (Feb. 16, 2023),

[3] Id.

[4] Alexandra Tremayne-Pengelly, The UK Has a 60-Year Old Law Prohibiting Repatriation of Art. Is That About to Change?, Observer (Feb. 11, 2023),; see also Patrick J. O’Keefe, Protecting Cultural Objects: Before and After 1970 43 (2017) (noting Greece’s request for the return of the Parthenon marbles at every session of the intergovernmental committee since the mid-1980’s).

[5] Tremayne-Pengelly, supra note 4; see also Tom Seymour, British Museum’s Hopes of a “Loan Arrangement” for the Return of the Parthenon Marbles Imperilled Ahead of Greek Elections, Art Newspaper (Jan. 13, 2023), (demonstrating the view of Greek politicians regarding the illicit British claim of ownership over the looted Parthenon Marbles in opposition to the British Museum’s desire for a long term loan while maintaining their claim of ownership).

[6] Alistair Smout, Parthenon Marbles Return Possible Without Ownership Accord, Campaigners Say, Reuters (Mar. 12, 2023),

[7] British Museum in Secret Talks With Greece Over Repatriation of Elgin Marbles, ARTFORUM (Dec. 5, 2022),

[8] Elisabetta Povoledo & Alex Marshall, Pope Francis to Return 3 Parthenon Marble Fragments to Greece, N.Y. Times (Dec. 19, 2022),

[9] Id.

[10] Nicole Winfield & Derek Gatopoulos, Vatican “Donating” Its Own 3 Parthenon Sculptures to Greece, AP NEWS (Mar. 7, 2023),; James Imam, ‘A Historic Event:’ Vatican Returns 2,500-year-old Parthenon Sculptures to Greece, (Mar. 8, 2023),

[11] Povoledo and Marshall, supra note 8.

[12] Helena Smith, Pope Francis Returns Three Fragments of Parthenon to Greece, Guardian (Mar. 25, 2023),

[13] Id.

[14] Povoledo and Marshall, supra note 8.

[15] Smout, supra note 5.

[16] Winfield & Gatopoulos, supra note 9.

[17] Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, Nov. 14, 1970, 823 U.N.T.S. 231 [hereinafter 1970 UNESCO Convention]; O’Keefe, supra note 4, at 43.

[18] Tremayne-Pengelly, supra note 4.

[19] Jo Lawson-Tancred, A New U.K. Law Gives Museums Unprecedented Power to Deaccession Art and Repatriate Objects in Their Collections, Artnet News (Sept. 27, 2022),

[20] Tremayne-Pengelly, supra note 4.

[21] Lawson-Tancred, supra note 19.

[22] Tremayne-Pengelly, supra note 4.

[23] Tom Seymour, British Museum’s Chairman Suggests “Hybrid” Deal With Greece Over Parthenon Marbles, Art Newspaper (Feb. 17, 2023),

[24] Smout, supra note 5.

[25] Id.

[26] Aubrey Allegretti, No Plans to Return Parthenon Marbles to Greece, Says Rishi Sunak, Guardian (Mar. 13, 2023),

[27] Id.

[28] Sir Noel Malcom, The Elgin Marbles: Keep, Lend, or Return? An Analysis, Pol’y Exch. (2023),