Who Owns the Elgin Marbles?

It's not polite to call the Elgin Marbles the Elgin Marbles anymore. Not even in the British Museum, where the ancient Greek sculptures and reliefs have resided since the early 19th century, after a British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire named Lord Elgin hacked them off the Parthenon. Even in that age of imperialism, many Brits saw Elgin's acts as cultural vandalism. Lord Byron slammed the marbles' removal in his bestselling epic poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. The call for their return has grown since Greece won its independence from Ottoman rule in 1829, led by the Greek government in particular since the 1980s. In the noisy debate over the restitution of ancient artworks to their original locale, no case is more controversial or inflamed than the question of the Parthenon marbles: should the British finally send them back?

Later this month a new Acropolis Museum will open in the shadow of the Parthenon in Athens. The building is more than a bold composition in glass, steel, concrete and stone: it is architecture as argument, explicitly meant to sway opinion over the fate of the marbles. Designed by the Swiss-born, New York–based Bernard Tschumi, the three-level structure begins to express its agenda in the way it defers to an ancient settlement that was discovered during excavation of the construction site. (The building was adapted so that it is raised on concrete pillars, allowing archeological work to continue beneath it—and with glass floors that will give visitors a dramatic view of the ongoing dig.) But it's the crown of the museum that will make the most powerful case for restitution: the top floor is a glass box that is canted at an angle away from the structure beneath it—like an uneven stack of cartons—so that it lines up perfectly with the Parthenon, visible about 1,000 feet away. Many of the Parthenon's original sculptures were lost or destroyed over the centuries; those remaining on the temple were removed in recent years because the pollution in Athens was eating away the marble. Now, along with other sculptures, the frieze that encircled the temple—it depicts a procession of figures, some bringing sacrifices—is installed in the new museum in its original configuration on the Parthenon. To accentuate the ghostly absence of the missing marbles, there are white plaster copies to fill the gaps.

The history of how the marbles got to London is muddy enough to bolster both sides of the argument. When the seventh Earl of Elgin took up residence in the embassy in Constantinople in 1799, he began to pursue his passion for classical antiquities. He sent emissaries on a mission to -Athens, which was then a shabby little outpost that had been under the Ottoman thumb for 400 years. At first, Elgin wanted only some sketches and plaster casts made of the great sculptures and reliefs on the Parthenon and other nearby ruins. But his permit from the Ottoman sultan granted his crew access to the Acropolis—then a Turkish garrison—and stated that "no one meddle with their scaffolding or implements nor hinder them from taking away any pieces of stone with inscriptions and figures." Politics was at play here at least as much as art appreciation. The Ottomans were grateful to Britain, which had blocked the advance of Napoleon in Egypt—and over several years, Elgin's agents chiseled away at the most potent symbol of the golden age of classical Greeks. But the gods got even, with Elgin at least. In the course of his Ottoman escapade, he lost the following: his beautiful and rich wife to his best friend, a big chunk of his nose to a nasty infection he'd caught in Constantinople and, ultimately, his marbles, which he was forced to sell to the British government in 1816 for £35,000 (roughly equivalent to $4 million today) to dig himself out of debt after his divorce.

Since then, the trustees of the British Museum have never wavered in their position that Elgin's marbles legally belong to the museum. Scholars long argued that the marbles were better preserved in London than they would be in smog-choked Athens, with its poor museum facilities. "The British said, you don't deserve them, you don't have a place to put them," says Antonis Samaras, the new minister of culture in Greece. "Now we have one of the best museums that can be." But rather than trying to negotiate the point right now, the Greeks are letting their new museum do the talking. "We are presenting in a visual way what was, to this point, a verbal discussion," says the museum's president, Dimitrios Pandermalis. Is there a glimmer of hope that all the remaining marbles from the Parthenon might eventually be reunited, at least temporarily? The trustees of the British Museum have stated they would consider lending the marbles to Athens—though some are too fragile to travel in either direction, notes the director, Neil MacGregor—provided the Greek government acknowledge Britain's ownership of the artworks. For many Greeks, that's a sore point. "How can anyone dare say they belong to the British?" asks Samaras. "These are treasures taken out of the Acropolis when Greece was under enemy occupation." Pandermalis takes a gentler, less political approach: he suggests that Greece could lend other classical pieces to London in exchange for a long-term loan of the marbles. "It's not easy," he says, "but let's find a solution for both sides."

Those who agree the British Museum owns the marbles have a strong case. Unlike the recent instances of American museums returning ancient Roman artifacts to Italy—where there was proof of theft or looting since 1970, under the terms of international treaties—here there is no legal basis, many experts say, given that Elgin's actions were approved by the rulers in power and that 200 years have passed. What's more, the precedent set by giving back the marbles would open a Pandora's box of similar claims, says James Cuno, the director of the Art Institute of Chicago, citing one potential high-profile target: Queen Nefertiti, ensconced in Berlin's Altes Museum for nearly a century.

To cut through this Gordian knot would practically require the wisdom of the ancients, but here's one idea: Wouldn't it be thrilling to see the marbles together in -Athens for a period of time? And wouldn't it be reasonable to return them afterward to the stewardship of the British Museum, where they can bask in a panorama of mankind's highest achievements? The ancient Hellenic culture that produced the marbles seeded all of Western civilization, not just the contemporary nation of Greece. The marbles, really, belong to everyone.