In January, Turkey will be turning to human rights law in a novel claim to repatriate sculptures currently housed in the British Museum. The lawsuit could use human rights legislation that has previously been used to overturn the convictions of terrorists to wrest contested treasures from the grips of museums.
The sculptures at issue, which are originally from ancient wonder the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, were acquired by the British Museum in the mid-19th century. Turkey argues that they should be returned to their original site of Bodrum in southwest Turkey.
The lawsuit will be filed at the European Court of Human Rights on January 30, 2013. It is a dramatic move that will serve as a test case for art repatriation worldwide. According to cultural property law specialist Norman Palmer, “”I have not heard of it [human rights] being used to raise a claim for the specific restitution of particular tangible objects … This would be a novel claim.”
There are reportedly 30 attorneys acting on the behalf of Turkish interests. So far these attorneys have remained silent on planned legal arguments. Human rights attorney Gwendolen Morgan has suggested that “the most likely line of attack” would be a claim that the UK has violated article 1, 1st protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights, “Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions.” Morgan further suggests that Turkish authorities will use the litigation to place moral pressure on the British government.
If Turkey were successful in their claim, the case could have disastrous consequences for the world’s museums. Countries who are seeking the return of cultural artifacts, including Greece and Nigeria, will no doubt keep a close watch on this case.