The Elgin Marbles were removed by a British aristocrat in the early 1800s from temple walls in Ottoman-controlled Greece. The sculpture collection was shipped and sold to the British government, where they have been on display in the British Museum. 

Ownership of the marbles has been the subject of a long standing international dispute. The British Museum maintains that the marbles were legally acquired with the permission of the Ottoman Empire. Greek authorities, however, argue the marbles are “looted treasures that are a foundation of their national heritage.”

Pressure on museums to return looted artifacts to their lands of origin has garnered widespread news coverage. For some, the surge in museum repatriations is an overdue repercussion for the exploitation of vulnerable societies by domineering imperial powers. For others, mounting pressure for repatriation endangers the ability of museums to preserve and display historical objects. 

Caption: A marble relief from the North frieze of the Parthenon, dating to roughly 438 BC – 432 BC. (Source: The British Museum)

The wave of artifact repatriation is being witnessed on a global scale. 

In July 2023, Manhattan District Attorney, Alvin L. Bragg, Jr., announced the return of two ancient marble busts that were pillaged from a tomb in present-day Libya and have been stored in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In a statement, Bragg noted that the marble busts are “windows into thousands of years of culture and deserve to be returned to their country of origin.”

Germany returned twenty of the “Benin Bronzes” in 2022 to what is today Nigeria, but what was then the Kingdom of Benin when the artifacts were pillaged in 1897 by British soldiers.

In July 2021, the Belgian government announced plans to return 2,000 artworks which Belgium plundered during its colonial rule of the present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo. Citing the forceful and violent nature of the looting, Belgium’s science minister Thomas Dermine explained that “[c]ultural heritage is one of the riches exploited by the colonial powers, and taking thousands of objects from colonies deprives the citizens of the former colony of access to their own history, culture, creativity and spirituality of their ancestors.” 

Caption: A marble bust dating to approximately 350 B.C.E. was returned to Libya by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office in 2023. (Source: NYT, with credit to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office)
Caption: A sculpture fragment (left) from the ancient Parthenon temple, which was returned by the Vatican to Greece in March 2023. (Source: AP News)

The recent wave in relic repatriation indicates a growing understanding that artifacts are endowed with profound cultural import. Artifacts possess an intangible character that is of fundamental importance to the heritage of present-day countries. Their value is derived not only from their physicality, but also from their historical and cultural legacy. 

Returning artifacts serves as acknowledgment of wrongful acquisition by museums and imperial powers, and allows the artifacts to reunite with their “rightful” inheritors. Despite the rise and fall of civilizations, the passage of centuries and millennia, and the succession of multiple generations of humankind, there remains an abstract notion that treasures of years long ago have a proper home. 

Underlying these repatriation efforts is the idea that the best way to protect and enforce the rights of bygone creators and owners, and to repair the injustice of looting these works, is to return the artifacts to where they were found.

There are many logistical questions plaguing museum authorities, including whether the artifact’s homeland is capable of safely housing the relics. For example, while the US formally repatriated 77 looted artifacts to Yemen in February 2023, the two governments agreed that the objects would remain in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art’s care for at least two years as Yemen grapples with civil war. Additionally, the potential scope of repatriation is vast. As UK Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan noted, agreeing to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece could “open the gateway to the question of the entire contents of our museums.”

More broadly, the intangible cultural value ascribed to these relics raises interesting questions for intellectual property scholarship. How does “cultural significance” fit into our existing notions of the right to own one’s creation? What does it mean for a “homeland” to establish ownership over an artifact, particularly when the creator and the government of that time no longer exist? Do present-day nation-states have rights to the artistic creations of the people who once occupied that territory?

As a watershed deal for the British Museum to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece awaits final resolution, implications for both physical and intellectual property loom large. We will have to wait and see how intellectual property law will develop to account for the notion that a country has the right to own the artistic expressions of those who walked that land years ago.