Repatriating the spoils of empire is stuck in all manner of legal and historical impasses that preserve the status quo

Those who would see the Parthenon marbles return to Greece sense change in the air. As the politics of identity resurge, as the legacies of colonialism are scrutinised, Benin bronzes held in Aberdeen and Cambridge have been sent back to Nigeria, those in Glasgow are the subject of a formal request, and those in Germany are to return too. The Benin bronzes – looted by the British in a punitive raid on Benin City in 1897 – are a very different case from the sculptures that once adorned the great temple of Athens’ patron goddess on the city’s Acropolis, acquired (or so it is argued) legally by Lord Elgin in 1801. But still: Palermo’s Archaeological Museum has just sent its share of the Parthenon sculptures to the Acropolis Museum – on loan, but with talk of a permanent arrangement.

The Palermo sculpture is a shoe-box-size fragment showing part of the goddess Artemis’s foot, rather than the 75m of frieze plus magnificent pediment held in the British Museum, but still, it’s a precedent of sorts. The Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, made return of the Parthenon marbles a talking point on a recent visit to London. Even the Times has reversed its leader line to support repatriation. “Separating components of an artistic whole is like tearing Hamlet out of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s works,” says its editorial – though bringing the Bloomsbury sculptures to Athens would not complete anything at all, since half of the stonework is destroyed, and they will never be intact again.

Charlotte Higgins is the Guardian’s chief culture writer

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