By Nick Squires, Athens 15 October 2014
Amal Clooney, the British lawyer who married George Clooney, says the British Museum should be embarrassed about how the friezes have been split between London and Athens
Blame it on an unfortunate choice of footwear, or a late running schedule, or the media circus that shadowed her every move.
Whatever the reason, Amal Clooney cancelled a visit to the Parthenon on Wednesday, on the third and final day of her mission to champion Greece's demand that the friezes which once adorned the 2,500 year old temple be relinquished by the British Museum and returned to Athens.
According to her official schedule, the British lawyer was to have climbed up to the Parthenon, which was built on top of the Acropolis in the fifth century BC in honour of the goddess Athena, at 4pm local time, after a press conference at the Acropolis Museum.
Mrs Clooney turned up to the museum impeccably dressed in a cream cropped jacket and pencil skirt by Chanel.
She was in high heels, prompting speculation among the Greek press that later she perhaps gazed at the dusty, rock strewn path leading up the steep flanks of the citadel and thought better of attempting the climb. The prospect of being trailed by dozens of photographers, cameramen and reporters under a hot autumn sun probably did not appeal very much either.
She had, at least, seen the friezes, known in Britain as the Elgin Marbles, during a guided tour of the ultra modern Acropolis Museum led by its director and Greece's culture minister.
Mrs Clooney said Greece has "just cause" in its fight to reclaim the Elgin Marbles from Britain, blaming the "intransigence" of the UK in the decades-long stand-off over the priceless 2,500-year-old sculptures.
Speaking in the shadow of the Parthenon, where Lord Elgin removed the sculptures 200 years ago, the British lawyer wryly acknowledged the intervention of her new husband, George Clooney, in the seemingly intractable dispute.
He spoke out earlier this year in favour of the marbles returning to Athens while promoting his film, The Monuments Men, about a team of American art experts dragooned into recovering art stolen by the Nazis in the Second World War.
"I hope that even at this very early stage of the marriage, I’m wise enough to know that it’s up to my husband to decide which causes he chooses to support," she said with a smile, insisting that she would not be enlisting the support of the Hollywood actor in the legal brief she will compile for the Greek government.
Mrs Clooney arrives at the Acropolis Museum (Rex Features)
Mrs Clooney spoke out after being shown the top-floor gallery of the Acropolis Museum where Greece displays the 40 per cent of the friezes that it retained after Lord Elgin, a British diplomat, took the remaining 60 per cent in the early 1800s.
The museum, unveiled in 2009, sits directly opposite the ancient citadel of the Acropolis, which is topped by the Parthenon, the temple dedicated to the goddess Athena.
"The Greek government has just cause and it’s time for the British Museum to recognise that and return the marbles to Greece. The injustice has persisted for too long," she said.
Mrs Clooney has been greeted with the sort of fanfare normally reserved for Hollywood stars like her husband since landing in Athens. On Wednesday she was mobbed by around 100 cameramen, photographers and reporters when she arrived at the Acropolis Museum, wearing a cream cropped jacket and pencil skirt by Chanel.
But she looked every inch the international lawyer when she arrived at the press conference.
With a pair of earphones clamped to her head to provide translation of Greek into English, she sat behind a long desk with a heavy black ring-binder file open in front of her, diligently taking notes whenever Greece’s culture minister spoke.
She and Geoffrey Robertson QC, her boss at London’s Doughty St Chambers, were first asked by the Greeks for advice on the contentious issue in 2011.
Mrs Clooney during her visit (Rex Features)
"It is sad to note that today, three years later, one of the most beautiful pieces of art in the world has still not been reunited for everyone to behold," said Mrs Clooney.
"The Greek government has the right to ask for the return of the marbles, 200 years after they were taken to the United Kingdom."
The fact that individual friezes had been split between London and Athens should be a source of embarrassment to the British Museum.
She cited the example of the figure of a horseman, "whose head is in Athens while his body is in London."
Earlier Mrs Clooney, along with Mr Robertson and David Hill, a British-born businessman from Australia who is the head of the International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures, had a meeting with Antonis Samaras, the prime minister.
"Greece is not alone in this campaign," said Mr Hill, a former chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
"Greece has many friends. We will not stop until the marbles are back here, where they belong. This is a noble and just cause. Opinion polls in Britain have shown that an overwhelming majority of people are in favour of their return."
Unesco, the cultural arm of the UN, asked the British government to enter mediation on the issue in 2013, but the UK has so far failed to respond.
The deadline for the Unesco request is next March, after which the Greek government may commence legal proceedings against the British government and the British Museum.
"The British Museum has said they will never give back the marbles, so the next step would be to go to an international court," such as the International Court of Justice or the European Court of Human Rights, said Mr Robertson.
He said Athens provided the cultural context for the Parthenon friezes and that those held in the British Museum, whose trustees he described as "philistines", were poorly displayed.
"They’re under bright lights, lit up as if they were corpses in a mortuary. Only 40 per cent are under the blue skies of Athens, where they can best be appreciated."
He wore a tie with an Aboriginal dot painting design – a nod to his success in 2007 in getting the Natural History Museum to return indigenous artefacts and remains to Australia.
He had a few choice words for Lord Elgin, who was serving as Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire when he ordered the removal of the sculptures from the Parthenon.
"He was a bankrupt. He used his diplomatic position to get a license to take the marbles and to profit personally by selling them to the British Museum. If he did that today, he would be in prison," he said.
Supporters of Lord Elgin have argued that he was just trying to safeguard the friezes, at a time when parts of the Parthenon were being carved off and burned to produce lime by ordinary Athenians.
The British Museum declined to comment to The Telegraph, but reiterated its long-standing position that the sculptures are "a part of the world’s shared heritage and transcend political boundaries."
A spokesman for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, said: "The Parthenon Sculptures are the legal property of the British Museum. They were not stolen. When Lord Elgin removed them from the Parthenon, he was acting under a licence issued by the Ottoman authorities – the legal government of the day.
"British law prevents national museums from breaking up and disposing of their collections. "Successive governments have believed that this is right in principle, and there are absolutely no plans to change the law in this respect.
"That said, the British Museum would consider any request for any part of the collection to be borrowed and returned, provided the borrowing institution acknowledges the British Museum’s ownership."
Mrs Clooney’s high-profile involvement in the dispute has endeared her deeply to Greeks, who see the return of the sculptures as a matter of national pride.
Journalists publicly thanked her for her visit and a teenage boy presented her with a bouquet of yellow roses when she arrived at the Acropolis Museum.
"It’s a big issue here. It’s part of our heritage," said Photis Kostamis, 55, a businessman strolling in central Athens. "With the economic crisis, when pensioners are struggling to survive and unemployment is so high, having the marbles back would lift the spirits of the Greeks."