ATHENS – An agreement to return the Parthenon Sculptures – better known in the UK as the Elgin Marbles – is at “an advanced stage”, according to a Greek newspaper.
Ta Nea reports that British Museum chair George Osborne, the former chancellor, has been holding secret talks with the Greek prime minister.
Greece has called for the return of the iconic sculptures for decades.
The British Museum said it would “talk to anyone, including the Greek government” to find partnership.
The Parthenon Sculptures are arguably the most high-profile artworks in the increasingly contested debate about whether museums should return items to their countries of origin.
They were removed from the Parthenon temple in Athens in the early 19th Century by the British soldier and diplomat, Lord Elgin. The sculptures were then bought by the British government in 1816 and placed in the British Museum.
The marble figures are part of a frieze that decorated the 2,500-year old temple, made by the sculptor Phidias.
The Parthenon Gallery at the Acropolis Museum was built more than a decade ago to house the sculptures. The exhibition combines the original marble sculptures with plaster copies of those held in the British Museum and other foreign museums.
Senior Greek officials have been in “preliminary” talks with the British Museum in what could amount to a tectonic shift in resolving the world’s longest-running cultural dispute: the repatriation of the 5th-century BC Parthenon marbles to Athens.
Revelations about the negotiations were first reported on Saturday by Ta Nea, which said that officials including the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, had met George Osborne, the chair of the British Museum, in a five-star London hotel as recently as Monday.
Insiders in Athens described the report, which gave a blow-by-blow account of where the talks had been conducted, as “not only credible but very exciting”.
“It is true there is a dialogue between the Greek government and the British Museum,” the country’s minister of state Giorgos Gerapetritis told the Guardian. “Right now, they are preliminary talks and, yes, I have met the British Museum’s chair, George Osborne” [to discuss the issue].
The news came five days after Mitsotakis told an audience at the London School of Economics that he “sensed” headway was being made on the issue and that a “win-win solution” was possible.
“We have seen progress,” said the Greek leader, who has made reunification of the classical statuary with the carvings that have remained in Athens a cultural priority. “I do sense a momentum.”
REUNIFICATION BUT NOT RETURN?
The row over the marbles – removed in contentious circumstances by Lord Elgin, who was ambassador at the time to the Ottoman empire of which present-day Greece was then a part – has raged for more than 200 years.
The British Museum acquired the antiquities, which include 75 metres of the Parthenon’s original 160-metre-long frieze, in 1816 when, bankrupt, despondent and racked by syphilis, the diplomat was forced to part with them.
Elgin, who had initially hoped to adorn his Scottish estate with the treasures, maintained he had been granted a “firman” by Ottoman authorities that permitted his agents in Athens to dismantle the pieces. It has since come to light that much of the statuary was violently detached, with slabs now in the British Museum’s possession hacked from the monument with the use of saws.
Ta Nea reported that the first of several behind-the-scenes meetings had taken place in London between Osborne and Mitsotakis in 2021 when the Greek premier made the marbles the centrepiece of Downing Street talks with his then counterpart Boris Johnson.
The former chancellor had then followed up with further discussions, meeting Gerapetritis and the Greek foreign minister Nikos Dendias in London.
“At least two of those meetings were held at the Greek ambassador’s residence in Mayfair. Another one was held as recently as this week at a hotel in Knightsbridge,” wrote the paper’s London correspondent, Yannis Andritsopoulos.
“The discussions have been kept out of the public eye. The chair of London’s largest museum first visited the [Greek] ambassador’s residence, at 51 Upper Brook Street, in mid-November 2021, to hold ‘exploratory talks’ with Mitsotakis about the fate of the 2,500-year-old sculptures.”
Negotiations, it said, further evolved this week when Osborne visited the Berkeley hotel in Knightsbridge to meet the Greek premier “a year after their first secret encounter”.
The dispute over ownership of the sculptures has descended into acrimony, with the Greek culture minister accusing Elgin of committing a “blatant act of serial theft”.
As the rhetoric has intensified, campaigners, backed by growing support among Britons for their return, have piled the pressure on London’s premier cultural institution to alter its stance.
“Clever politicians listen to their people,” said Nikos Stampolidis, the Greek academic who heads the Acropolis Museum at the foot of the Periclean site. “If there were a solution, Britain could be the protagonists of an ethical empire because this transcends our countries. If the marbles were reunited here in Athens, within view of the greatest symbol of democracy, it would be a great act for humanity.”
Gerapetritis conceded that the talks were aimed as much at “establishing principles” [of discussion] as ameliorating the increasingly toxic atmosphere that had arisen on the issue. Both sides, he said, were aware of their “red lines” and a deal was far from close.
The chair of the British Museum has been holding secret talks with the Greek prime minister over the possible return of the Elgin Marbles.
The negotiations between the former chancellor and Kyriakos Mitsotakis have been taking place in London since November 2021, according to Greek daily newspaper Ta Nea.
The museum has vowed not to “dismantle our great collection” after the paper quoted “insiders” as saying the talks were at an “advanced stage”.
But it said it was seeking a “new” and “positive” partnership over the sculptures – 17 figures and part of a frieze that decorated the 2,500-year-old Parthenon temple at the Acropolis – which Mr Mitsotakis wants returned to Athens.
The marbles were taken by Lord Elgin in the early 19th century when he was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, and have been the subject of a long-running dispute over where they should be displayed.
The Greek prime minister has called for the sculptures to be transferred on many occasions, even offering to loan other treasures to the British Museum in exchange.
A spokesperson for the Parthenon Project, a campaign advocating for the return of the marbles, hailed the talks as a “positive sign” that a “win-win solution” to the centuries-old debate is possible.
It comes after Mr Osborne said there was a “deal to be done” to share the Parthenon Marbles with Greece.
A British Museum spokesperson said: “The British Museum has publicly called for a new Parthenon partnership with Greece and we’ll talk to anyone, including the Greek government, about how to take that forward.
“As the chair of trustees said last month, we operate within the law and we’re not going to dismantle our great collection as it tells a unique story of our common humanity. But we are seeking new positive, long-term partnerships with countries and communities around the world, and that of course includes Greece.”
A spokesperson for the Parthenon Project said: “With widespread support for reunification amongst both the Greek and British public, and constructive dialogue going on based on mutual trust, a solution to this long-standing issue is finally within reach.
“We have argued for a deal that is beneficial to both Greece and Britain, centred on a cultural partnership between the two countries. This would see the British Museum continue in its role as a ‘museum of the world’ displaying magnificent Greek artefacts as part of rotating exhibits, with the Parthenon Sculptures reunited in their rightful home in Athens.”
LONDON (AP) — The British Museum has pledged not to dismantle its collection, following a report that the institution’s chairman has held secret talks with Greece’s prime minister over the return of the Parthenon Sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles.
The report by the Greek newspaper Ta Nea is the latest twist in the long-running dispute over ownership of the ancient sculptures, which originally stood on the Acropolis in Athens and have been a centerpiece of the British Museum’s collection since 1816.
Ta Nea reported Saturday that negotiations between museum Chairman George Osborne and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis have been taking place since November 2021 and are at an advanced stage.
While the museum didn’t deny that talks have taken place, a spokesman refused to discuss the specifics of the Ta Nea story. The museum said it was prepared to “talk to anyone, including the Greek government” about a new Parthenon “partnership.’’
“As the chair of trustees said last month, we operate within the law and we’re not going to dismantle our great collection as it tells a unique story of our common humanity,” the museum said in a statement released Saturday. “But we are seeking new positive, long-term partnerships with countries and communities around the world, and that of course includes Greece.”