Michael Reppas realized a lifelong dream last summer when he was granted the rare opportunity to set foot inside the Parthenon, a 2,500-year-old Greek structure that has been off limits to tourists for more than 15 years.
But Reppas’ dream was missing something, namely the marble statues taken from the ancient Athenian landmark by a British diplomat 200 years ago during the Ottoman occupation of Greece. The artifacts are currently on display at the British Museum in London. As does the government of Greece, Reppas wants them back in Athens. A Miramar resident who is a third-generation Greek American, Reppas has brought home the fight to repatriate the statues known as the Elgin Marbles through a group he founded two years ago, The American Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures.
”Would you take the Statue of Liberty, cut off its head and then display it in another country?” asked Reppas, a commercial litigator and international-law attorney. The Parthenon, off limits to tourists to prevent damage to the structure and to allow for repairs, was a temple built to the ancient goddess Athena and the focal point of the Acropolis.
The marble statues depict men atop horses and battles with centaurs, among other scenes. The subject is a personal one for Reppas, 38, who refused to visit the British Museum when he lived for a year in England. ”It really upsets me that part of my history has been looted and is on proud display by the British in a trophy case,” he said.
Reppas’ committee, one of several like it around the world (including one in England), reached a membership of more than 100 this year and is stocked with scholars from around the country. ”He’s not standing alone on this,” said Demetrios C. Kirkiles, a Fort Lauderdale attorney and secretary of the local chapter of the American Helenic Educational Progressive Association. Kirkiles said he recruited Reppas to speak on the matter for his association’s law seminars because many museums house looted or stolen artifacts. Hannah Boulton, a spokeswoman for the British Museum, said the British government legally owns the statues and the museum would consider a short-term loan in exchange for other artifacts from the Greeks. There have been calls for the return of the statues since the mid-19th century, but Greece made its first official request in the 1980s. Boulton said the only official request the museum has received is for the Elgin Marbles’ permanent return.
But Elena Korka, director of prehistoric and classical antiquities with the Greek Ministry of Culture, said there has been discussion of a long-term loan in which the British would maintain ownership, among other possible compromises. The marbles should be housed in the New Acropolis Museum, under construction at the foot of the Acropolis and expected to open in late 2008, Korka said. ”The new museum will make it so evident to almost every visitor that the sculptures need to be reunified,” Korka said. “When you see these sculptures and what they mean you can’t accept to have the head of these sculptures in London and the body in Athens.” The majority of the statues are in Athens and London, but others are scattered throughout eight other European museums.
Korka said the other museums have agreed to return their sections of the collection once the British Museum does so. Boulton said a total reunification of the statues is impossible because about half have been destroyed. Stephen Miller, a retired University of California-Berkeley professor, archaeologist and honorary chairman of The American Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures, said every effort should be made to make the Parthenon as complete as possible.
”To understand what that building is we need to have all of it together in one place,” Miller said.