In the early part of the 19th century sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens were removed from the Acropolis under the direction of the Earl of Elgin, then the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, which at the time included Greece. The sculptures were brought to Britain, finding their way to the British Museum in London in 1816, where they are viewed by millions of museum visitors annually. A debate long has simmered as to whether these Parthenon Marbles, which date from the 5th century BCE, should be returned to Athens or remain in the United Kingdom. Elements of the debate include questions about: the legitimacy of the initial relocation of the statuary; the quasi-legal impact of more than 200 years of British stewardship; the risk-mitigating role for dispersal of art; and, the influence on other art and museums of any precedent that might be established by return of the Parthenon Marbles.
This paper surveys the arguments on both sides of the debate. A Law-and-Economics lens is employed to examine the ‘property dispute’ surrounding the Marbles. Coase-like reasoning is applied to the question of the ‘highest-valued’ location of the Marbles, supplemented with behavioral economics concepts involving cultural identity and endowment effects. The paper concludes by offering some contours for a potentially Pareto-improving agreement that would result in the reunification of the Parthenon Marbles in Greece.Leitzel concludes
The Law and Economics approach to property disputes such as that concerning the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum involves seeking an outcome that comports with the maximization of efficiency. This approach ignores – except to the extent that efficiency is implicated – issues such as legality, justice, and ethics: issues that often are highlighted in other approaches to the Marbles dispute. What efficiency does take into account are the preferences of all interested individuals, current and future, while reflecting the intensity of those preferences, generally expressed in terms of the willingness-to-pay for various alternatives. The fact that efficiency concerns the preferences of all interested parties indicates that it has no direct interest in national boundaries or national cultural heritage: in the “two ways of thinking about cultural property” identified in Merryman (1986), efficiency falls on the cosmopolitan, one-common-culture side of the divide (as opposed to taking a nationalistic approach). In terms of precedent, an efficiency rationale for return of the Parthenon Marbles does not support a general rule that people today who happen to inhabit a region of the earth where great art was produced or resided in the past have any stronger claim than do the rest of us to possession or ownership of the art.
The major elements of the efficiency-centered view are the number of people who can see the Marbles in the two competing locations (or other locations, for that matter); the value of the aesthetic experience that viewing the Marbles would hold in the alternative locations (or rather, the incremental value relative to the experience without the Elgin Marbles); and the intensity of the desire for possession unrelated to viewing, perhaps deriving from an understanding that the Marbles form a key part of one’s cultural heritage. In my estimation, the aesthetic and the “cultural heritage” elements greatly favor the Athens claim, whereas in terms of number of visitors, London currently is superior. Assuming that the efficiency calculus does favor Athens, what sort of a deal can be struck that will result in the reunification of the Parthenon Marbles at the Acropolis Museum? Such a mutually beneficial bargain will be possible, by the usual economics reasoning, if indeed Athens remains the more efficient location, even when transaction and relocation costs are accounted for. The rudiments of a potential agreement are suggested by resolutions to other recent cultural property disputes. The idea is to fashion the return of the Elgin collection into a celebration of the art and the initiation of a new phase of Greek-British cooperation in matters cultural. Loans of other Greek antiquities to Britain, exhibits in Athens and London devoted to the British Museum’s stewardship over the Marbles, scholarly conferences (perhaps in many fields, including, for instance, literature, history, and economics), and commitments to continued educational exchanges (such as internships for British students at the Acropolis Museum or other Greek cultural institutions, with reciprocity in Britain for Greek students): these are the types of elements that can transform an ongoing irritant in Greek-British relations into a celebration and enhancement of the Parthenon and its place in world culture.