The Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum

27 Pages Posted: 5 Feb 2020

Date Written: July 2, 2016


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.

Keywords: Parthenon, British Museum, Cultural Property, Repatriation, Coase Theorem, Law and Economics

JEL Classification: K00, K11, L31, Z1

Suggested Citation

Leitzel, Jim, The Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum (July 2, 2016). Available at SSRN: or

Jim Leitzel (Contact Author)

University of Chicago ( email )

1101 East 58th Street
Chicago, IL 60637
United States
773-702-8555 (Phone)

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