A German university will be the first foreign institution to return part of the 2,500-year-old Parthenon sculptures to Greece, the government said late on Wednesday.
The small piece will be handed over by University of Heidelberg officials in early September, Greece’s Culture Minister Giorgos Voulgarakis said.
Measuring 8 by 12 centimeters (3 by nearly 5 inches), the relief sculpture of a man’s foot is far less significant than the British Museum’s collection of Parthenon masterpieces - also known as the Elgin Marbles - which Greece has fought for decades to reclaim.
But its return is a highly symbolic act which officials in Athens hope will lead to further the repatriations of the thousands of Greek antiquities in foreign museums and collections.
“This is very encouraging, and part of a series of things that are at last being put in order,” Voulgarakis said. “Our systematic efforts are leading to results.”
The Parthenon temple on the Acropolis, dedicated to Athena, goddess of wisdom, was built between 447 and 432 BC and is considered the crowning piece of ancient Greek architecture and art.
Large sections of its sculptured decoration were removed by Britain’s Lord Elgin in the early 19th century and since then have been displayed in the British Museum in London.
Greece claims these works were illegally removed and should be returned to Athens to be displayed alongside its own Parthenon sculptures.
Wednesday’s announcement came a day after the J. Paul Getty Museum said it had signed over to Greece the ownership of two ancient sculptures in its collections, following intense pressure from Athens. The pieces will be returned to Greece next week.
The private museum in Los Angeles is discussing the return of another two antiquities that Greece says were illegally excavated and spirited out of the country.
The Heidelberg sculpture belongs to the north section of the Parthenon frieze, a 160-meter (525-foot) strip of marble slabs decorated in relief with figures from a religious procession. It joins other parts of the frieze in Greece.
A Culture Ministry official said Greece would be offering an ancient artifact in return for the fragment - but did not offer further details.
The piece is expected to be displayed in a new 129-million-euro ($165 million) museum under construction in Athens to house finds from the Acropolis. The building is set for completion in March 2007.
Parts of the Parthenon sculptures are also held in the Louvre in Paris, and in museums in the Vatican, Vienna, Munich, Copenhagen and Palermo.