LONDON – While denied by the New Democracy government, The British Museum said it’s closing in on a deal with Greek officials which would see some of the stolen Parthenon Marbles loaned back for display.
The agreement is still being worked out, said the British newspaper The Telegraph, which reported that museum officials said there were “constructive discussions” going on.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, facing a tough re-election campaign and museum Chairman George Osborne earlier were said to have been holding secret negotiations for a year about a plan for a return of the treasures.
Facing a tough re-election campaign in the coming months, return of the marbles would be a coup for Mitsotakis although if he agrees to a loan he earlier said he would reject it could bring blowback from critics if Greece gives up ownership of the 2500-year-old artifacts.
The museum has steadfastly insisted it’s the rightful owner of the marbles that were ripped off the Parthenon 200 years earlier by a Scottish diplomat, Lord Elgin, who said he had the permission of the ruling Ottoman Empire, which didn’t own them.
The Greek government said earlier it was dealing for the return of the marbles and the Telegraph said the agreement had already been drawn up but it wasn’t said who on Greece’s side was negotiating.
Culture Minister Lina Mendoni late in 2022 worked out an agreement for the partial and gradual return over a series of decades of Cycladic treasures owned by a New York businessman despite concerns they had been looted.
The report, also cited by Reuters, would require Greece put up collateral in return for the loan in the form of other artifacts that could be on display in the British Museum despite concerns its galleries are susceptible to water damage.
The paper reported such an arrangement, which would in effect be a loan arrangement, could be concluded soon. However, Greek officials have said discussions were at a preliminary stage while denying a return was imminent.
“We’ve said publicly, we’re actively seeking a new Parthenon partnership with our friends in Greece and as we enter a new year constructive discussions are ongoing,” the British Museum said in a statement.
The museum said the treasures – which it calls The Elgin Marbles to further strip them of any identity with Greece – were legally acquired and British law prevents it from breaking up collections.
NOT SET IN STONE
The museum owns nearly half of the marbles that were a 160-meter long (525-foot frieze) that were on the Parthenon atop the Acropolis and Mendoni earlier had insisted they were stolen.
A spokesperson for the Greek government said there had not been any further discussions with British government officials recently, but its request for the return of the sculptures was ongoing, Reuters added.
“There hasn’t been a new development on this front,” the spokesperson said. “The government with professionalism and full respect for all the parameters of this issue will continue to pursue the best possible result, aiming at the reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures.”
Greek sources have indicated that the two parties are still apart on the details of what a return would constitute and Mitsotakis earlier said he was talking about reunification but not an outright return. “There is no such deal,” an unnamed Greek official told the British newspaper The Guardian.
While Osborne said he wanted a “partnership” with Greece the museum until now hasn’t said that discussions were under way or progressing. “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 earlier.
Greece opened a new Acropolis Museum in 2009 with a view of the nearby Acropolis and Parthenon, and set aside a top floor glass-walled gallery for their display if ever returned.
The British Museum’s Parthenon galleries are in a poor state of repair, The Guardian noted, adding that they will be renovated and it would create an opportunity to lend some of the items to Greece if a deal is worked out.
Pressure had been building on the British Museum to strike some kind of deal after an Italian museum said it would return some Greek artifacts it had obtained and the Vatican in December 2022 gave back three Parthenon pieces from its collection.
A spokesperson for the Parthenon Project, which campaigns for the sculpture’s return to Athens, told The Guardian that it welcomed signs that “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, centered 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 artifacts as part of rotating exhibits, with the Parthenon Sculptures reunited in their rightful home in Athens,” even if they don’t belong to Greece anymore.