Works of art and refunds: the case of the Parthenon

The reflection continues on the ever-current theme of the return of works of art to the countries of origin. All this, while the region of Sicily has given its consent to the final return to Greece of the fragment of the Parthenon, kept at the Salinas Museum and the British Museum, opens up the possibility of a dialogue on the same and protracted issue.

Parthenon in Athens in 1978. Photo Steve Swayne CC BY 2.0

It had been talked about for some time, and a few days ago the agreement was signed that will allow the fragment of the Parthenon frieze from Antonino Salina’s Regional Archaeological Museum in Palermo to be exhibited at the Acropolis Museum in Athens, reunited with the other spheres. present in the beautiful Greek museum.
Although this is an international agreement for the benefit of two public museum institutions, by virtue of the special division of competences in our system, the agreement was concluded between the Greek Ministry of Culture and the Department of Culture and Identity.Sicilian.
The most sensitive issue, beyond the type of agreement, however, is the legitimacy of requests for the return of goods to the country of origin, even after centuries of having been moved or stolen from the place where they were located. In fact, these requests are becoming more frequent, they put pressure on the political and economic relations between stateswhich imposes a historical revision of previous power policies (and sometimes repression) practiced by many European countries.

“The most sensitive issue is the legitimacy of requests for the return of goods to the country of origin, even after centuries of having been moved or stolen from the place where they were located.”

Over the last few years, the subject has become particularly hot, at least beginning with the promise of Emmanuel Macron during an official visit to Burkina Faso in 2017 to return the cultural values ​​stolen from African countries in colonial times and found in French museums within five years. The report published in late 2018 by the Sarr-Savoy Commission commissioned by the French president to plan the recovery process – not surprisingly inspired by a “new relational ethics“- foresaw that at least three stages should be completed by 2022, but the process is slow and complex and so far it has concretely made it possible to conclude a few agreements: the most important, concluded in November 2021, concerns France’s return of twenty-six items of the Kingdom of Abomey’s treasures to the Republic of Benin. This initiative has revived the international debate on the issue, and favors similar initiatives in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and the United Kingdom.
Of course, the controversy in this kind of event can be really difficult and is the result of the contrast between conflicting legal, ethical and philosophical visions that influence the notions of cultural heritage, of a “universal” museum, of the preservation and use of culture. assets, of affiliation and sustainability.
The case of the Parthenon fragments falls within this sphere. The events in the bullets acquired in 1811 by the British ambassador to the Ottoman sublime Porte, Lord Elgin, and kept in the British Museum for about two centuries are well known, as are the recurring requests of the Greek government to obtain their restitution. , so far without success, despite the good offices of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee on promoting the return of cultural heritage to their country of origin and the subsequent involvement of the European Parliament. Less well known is the fact that parts and / or fragments of the friezes are also found in museums in other European cities, including Rome (Vatican Museums), Vienna, Munich, Copenhagen, Palermo and Heidelberg. In fact, in 2006, the Museum of Antiquities at the University of Heidelberg was the first to promote the return of a fragment of a plate of the Parthenon and donated it to Greece.

Parthenon, Fragment of Palermo or Fagan Artifact.  Antonio Salina Regional Archaeological Museum, Palermo
Parthenon, Fragment of Palermo or Fagan Artifact. Antonio Salina Regional Archaeological Museum, Palermo


Despite the broader context of refund requests, the case of the Parthenon bullets it stands out because it is not just the symbol of a national collectivity, but of an entire civilization and even of all Western culture. Based on this observation, the (future) return of the fragment of the Archaeological Museum in Palermo to the Greek Ministry of Culture takes on an even more relevant significance, both from an Italian and an international perspective.
From the first point of view, the highly symbolic significance of the initiative of a country like Italy, rich in art and culture, which often finds itself asking for the return or return of its cultural heritage assets that are subject to looting or disintegration, can not escape. … Since 2006, our country has actually negotiated a number of cultural cooperation agreements with important foreign museums, and at the same time obtained a refund or donation of goods belonging to our cultural heritage. In this case, using a similar agreement model, we have placed ourselves in the virtuous and almost unprecedented position of those who are in favor of returning to the country of origin, and in return we achieve a modulated cooperation in the cultural sector. Italy, thanks to its extraordinary cultural charm and the prestige enjoyed by some of its cultural heritage institutions (especially the Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage), carries considerable weight in the institutions of world culture and especially at Unesco. Availability for international cooperation when, as in this case, it is a matter of showing sensitivity to the speculative expectations of others, it represents a strong signal and becomes an indisputable element of coherence and international credibility.
From the second point of view, one can not fail to point out the impact which, at least indirectly, this affair has on the much more difficult dispute that pits Greece against the United Kingdom and the British Museum. As the British press has not failed to observe, the appearance of this agreement, although not having direct consequences in terms of legal obligations, has certainly had the effect of increasing pressure on the United Kingdom to reach a negotiated solution regarding the fate of the Frisians. . of the Parthenon at the British Museum. The path outlined by the cultural cooperation agreements – within which the return and return of goods is accompanied by a number of other services such as loans, jointly managed excavation and research initiatives, exchange of professionals, holding exhibitions, conferences and seminars in cooperation – is now extensive. Italy was one of the most convinced forerunners and continues with this new agreement on the right track.

Manlio Frigo

Article published on Artribune Magazine # 65-66

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  • Parthenon # 1 “The Unmissable” this week. Warhol’s two of spades, the story of the Parthenon, the exhibitionist curator. And the rock stars in the hologram version …
  • Parthenon # 2 Art Digest: Never use sperm in art, it is dangerous (and tiring). Guggenheim Bilbao 2? No, for now … DKNY and these $ 100,000 “benefits”
  • Parthenon # 3 The Strillone: ​​too many tourists come for free, at Italia Oggi suspends the Louvre on Sundays with free admission. And then London against George Clooney about the “Parthenon case”, at auction a mural by Basquiat, Matisse exhibited in Ferrara …
  • Parthenon # 4 Art Digest: apartment for sale overlooking the Parthenon. Ai-Xi, the war in Berlin. Spain or Spain, as long as it is magna
  • Parthenon # 5 The Newsboy: Amal Clooney at La Stampa helps Greece get the friezes from the Parthenon back. And then Picasso donated to Metropolitan …
  • Parthenon # 6 “If you do not give them back to us, you can not lend them to anyone else.” Greeks angry at the British sending a sculpture from the Parthenon to Russia: how do you think?
  • Parthenon # 7 Parthenon balls decorated with handbags, scarves and sunglasses. The latest Gucci campaign raises the Unesco club
  • Parthenon # 8 Lo Strillone: ​​Trussardi parades at the Brera Art Gallery during the masterpieces of sacred art in La Stampa. And then Italy-Japan, goodbye to Cesare Colombo
  • Parthenon # 9 Welcome back to the Parthenon. The west facade of the temple will soon be freed of cranes and scaffolding
  • Parthenon # 10 Refunds and colonialism: according to UNESCO, the British Museum was to return the bullets to Athens

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