Greece is ramping up its efforts to reclaim the Parthenon Marbles from the British Museum after an employee was fired for stealing over 2,000 valuable artifacts and auctioning them on eBay. The incident has renewed the Greek government’s calls for the return of the iconic sculptures, which were removed from Athens in the 19th century.
Despina Koutsoumba, director of the Association of Greek Archaeologists, voiced her dissatisfaction with the British Museum, stating, “We want to tell the British Museum that they cannot any more say that Greek cultural heritage is more protected in the British Museum.” Culture Minister Lina Mendoni also expressed support for the demand to reunite the sculptures with Greece.
The stolen items, known as the Elgin Marbles after the British Lord Elgin who took them from the Acropolis, have been a source of contention between Greece and the UK for many years. The recent theft has further reinforced Greece’s claim for the definitive return of the sculptures.
Tim Loughton, chair of the all-parliamentary group on the British Museum, criticized Greece’s response as “blatant opportunism.” He argued that the thefts were not on the scale of the Mona Lisa heist and claimed that such incidents at the museum are extremely rare.
The British Museum confirmed the thefts and subsequently fired Peter Higgs, a senior curator and Greek artifact expert with 30 years of experience. The institution is now taking legal action in response to the incident. Police have been investigating the thefts since the beginning of the year but have yet to make any arrests.
Art dealer Ittai Gradel, who had purchased several items online that he recognized from the museum’s catalog, raised concerns in 2021. However, his warnings were dismissed by the deputy director Jonathan Williams, who insisted there was no suggestion of wrongdoing and that the collection was protected. Gradel went on to purchase around 70 antiquities on eBay before ultimately alerting the museum and cooperating with investigators.
Hartwig Fischer, the museum’s director who recently announced his resignation, claimed that Gradel had not been forthcoming about his purchases. It was only after the museum initiated a full audit of its collection a year after Gradel’s warning that the scale of the problem became apparent.
The British Museum has yet to disclose the full extent of the losses, but media reports suggest that as many as 2,000 items may be missing, potentially worth millions of dollars. The thefts have brought the issue of the Parthenon Marbles back into the spotlight and further fueled Greece’s quest for their return.
In 2019, Fischer caused controversy by describing Lord Elgin’s removal of the marbles as a “creative act” and asserting that they would not be returned. Greece has been pursuing legal avenues for the repatriation of the cultural treasures for many years, and this recent incident has only intensified their efforts. The ongoing dispute between Greece and the UK serves as a reminder of the complex and contentious issues surrounding cultural heritage and restitution.