The Conservative Party is now in a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. The statement below is the position of the previous Conservative government and therefore is the nearest thing we have to a policy statement by the Conservative Party itself. The Conservative Party has not changed its position on the question of the Parthenon Marbles.

This was confirmed in a recent House of Commons exchange between Prime Minister David Cameron and Andrew George, the Liberal Democrat MP and chairperson of Marbles Reunited. George told Cameron at prime minister's questions that Britain could do its bit to help Greece by returning the sculptures to Athens. Cameron said he had no intention of allowing Britain to "lose its marbles". He told MPs: "I'm afraid I don't agree...the short answer is that we're not going to lose them." (Why do people think that this line about losing our marbles is so amusing? We've heard it so many times it is getting tedious).

Department of National Heritage

The Parthenon Sculptures

The question of the legitimate acquisition of the Parthenon Sculptures, by Lord Elgin, is, in the view of the British Government, beyond doubt. Before Parliament agreed to purchase them from Lord Elgin in 1816, this was examined thoroughly by a Select Committee [of the House of Commons]. They decided that Lord Elgin had the permission of the Ottoman Authorities and had acted as a private individual.

The Caryatid removed by
Lord Elgin
Greece had been part of the Ottoman Empire, largely since 1453, and the firmans Lord Elgin obtained were from the Government of the day. Elgin's operations necessitated the granting of several firmans and permissions from the authorities in Constantinople -- the first firman enabled his work to begin (Italian translation), a second during the course of operations allowed for the removal of a house in order to allow excavations in front of the temple, and a third group of documents was secured that declared that the Turkish Government approved of all that the Voivode and Disdar in Athens had done on its behalf.

Legally and historically their eventual deposit in the British Museum should be applauded as preserving a significant and internationally important piece of Cultural Property. They have become a central focus of Western European culture and civilisation. Greece could have no better ambassador abroad than the Parthenon Sculptures of the British Museum, a museum where they are viewed by over six million people each year. The British Museum is truly a universal museum, transcending national boundaries, in the same genre as those in Paris, Berlin and Vienna. The Parthenon Sculptures are an integral part of the whole collection in such a universal museum.

The British Government agrees with the Trustees of the Museum that the Sculptures of the Parthenon, displayed in a Gallery purpose-built for them in 1938, should remain there.

The British Museum is a body corporate established by statute. In law it is wholly independent of the Government. The powers of the British Museum are limited to those given in their creating statute. That statute severely limits the circumstances in which the British Museum may dispose of any object in the collection and it is quite clear that it would be illegal for the Museum to dispose of the Sculptures under the law as it is at the moment.

It follows that primary legislation would be necessary merely to permit the Museum to return the Sculptures to Greece. In purely legal terms such permissive legislation would be possible. Fundamental problems would, however, arise if, notwithstanding such permissive legislation, the Museum were not prepared to return the Sculptures. It is clear beyond doubt that the British Museum is the lawful owner of the Sculptures. As has already been explained, the Museum is wholly independent of Government and any attempt at compulsion would need to be founded on further primary legislation. To be effective, such legislation would need to empower the Government to deprive the British Museum of its lawful possessions. Such confiscatory legislation would be contrary to Article 1 of the First Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights unless the confiscation was in the public interest and unless compensation was paid.

Metope In the view of the United Kingdom Government it would not be in the public interest to remove the Sculptures from one of the world's most important universal museums where they form an integral part of the Museum's Collection and where they are available for study by scholars in the context of the Collection as a whole. Even if it were accepted that the removal of the Sculptures from the Museum could be justified in the public interest, the necessary confiscation could only take place in a way consistent with the Convention if compensation was paid to the Museum. The jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights suggests that such compensation must bear some relation to the market value of the possessions which are confiscated. Although in one sense the Sculptures are priceless, it is clear that their market value is many millions of pounds. Such cost would be unacceptable to the United Kingdom Government.

In conclusion, therefore, it is the view of the United Kingdom Government that Article 1 of the First Protocol to the European Convention of Human Rights prevents the introduction of legislation compelling the British Museum to return the Sculptures except at unacceptable cost both financial and in perjuring itself as to the public interest involved.

Department of National Heritage
1 September 1996.

Received 4 March 1997

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