LONDON – An editorial in the Times of London – which had always supported the British Museum keeping the stolen Parthenon Marbles – for their return to Athens has prompted Greece to step up the pressure to get them back.
That came amid a shift in public opinion – which had supported their return – with even more calling for Greece to have the Parthenon Marbles again, some 200 years after a Scottish diplomat, Lord Elgin, ripped them off the Acropolis site and then sold them to the museum.
The British newspaper The Guardian said that the New Democracy government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who had first wanted them loaned, was buoyed by the newspaper’s shift.
“The sculptures are the most important link between the modern Greeks and their ancestors,” said Tasos Chatzivasileiou, a Member of Parliament who is Mitsotakis’ top foreign policy adviser.
“Our strategy will be to turn up the heat, to keep this issue in the public sphere and to raise it at every opportunity,” he told the paper, although the government hasn’t moved to take legal action, sticking with diplomacy and now squeezing harder although British Museum officials said they will never be returned.
The Times though said the return should come at a price – that Greece should pay for getting back its own treasures although it wasn’t said how the priceless marbles could be valued.
“Not since the early 1980s – when the former culture minister Melina Mercouri first demanded they be restored to their homeland – has the drive to retrieve the ‘exiled’ marbles been so alive,” wrote The Guardian’s long-time correspondent in Athens, Helena Smith.
The British Museum holds nearly half of the Parthenon’s 160-meter (525-foot) long frieze that’s considered the pinnacle of ancient classical art and perhaps the world’s most revered.
Greek governments have long argued that the marbles were stolen while the British Museum said they were legally obtained from Elgin, who had permission from officials of the ruling Ottoman Occupation to take them, although they belonged to Greece, not Turkey.
“Our bilateral relations go back centuries … but we believe they are also incomplete,” said Chatzivasileiou, who sat in on talks in Downing Street in November, 2o20 when Mitsotakis raised the issue with British Premier Boris Johnson, who refused to intervene. “We need to work hard together to overturn an injustice that weighs heavy on the hearts of Greeks,” said Chatzivasileiou.
A YouGov poll conducted days after Mitsotakis’ meeting with Johnson also found that 59 percent of Britons believe the marbles that were created in Greece belong to Greece and not to the British Museum or UK.
For years, a long line of activist groups as well as celebrities, politicians, British intellectuals and Hellenophiles have called for the return of the marbles, falling on deaf ears.
Johnson, a passionate advocate of the antiquities’ repatriation as a classics student at Oxford University, has changed his stance and said he can’t interfere politically despite the museum’s ties to the government.
He has also said the dispute should be discussed with the museum’s trustees despite UNESCO saying it should be resolved by the governments of the countries, not the museum board.
On its website, the British Museum said Elgin not only “acted with the full knowledge and permission of the legal authorities of the day in both Athens and London” but that his “activities were thoroughly investigated by a parliamentary select committee in 1816 and found to be entirely legal” – by British lawmakers.” He sold them when he went broke.
ELGIN’S BRIBERY, TURKISH CORRUPTION
“The whole debate has struck a chord,” said Mitsotakis, who has frequently described London’s stance as “a losing battle” as other museums are returning stolen artifacts and a Sicilian museum is loaning Greece another piece of a marble that was taken.
The piece, which portrays a foot peeking out from beneath the robe of a goddess believed to be Artemis, belongs to the frieze’s acclaimed eastern section depicting the deities of Mount Olympus.
Unveiling the sculpture on the upper floor of the Acropolis Museum, Mitsotakis said the breakthrough deal that had sealed its homecoming offered “a blueprint” for other countries, including the UK.
Sculptures that once ornamented the great ancient wonder are exhibited in cultural institutions across Europe although the vast majority are in London, The Guardian piece noted, the UK having plundered former colonies.
“This agreement paves the way for the British Museum to enter into serious discussions with the Greek authorities in order to find a solution that will be mutually acceptable,” Mitsotakis told reporters but he was ignored.
The Times, which had maintained for more than 50 years that the marbles should remain in London, said the deal underscored what had become a “compelling case” for the sculptures’ restitution.
The argument that Athens lacked an appropriate place to exhibit the carvings no longer held when “a magnificent museum next to the Acropolis” had been built to house the cultural heritage, it said.
Human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, who wrote that Elgin bribed Turkish officials, and had no right to take the marbles, said he senses the tide is turning in Greece’s favor, The Guardian added.
“The lie told by the British Museum and echoed by the British government that the marbles were lawfully acquired is no longer sustainable,” he said. “The marbles were stolen by use of bribery and corruption – even a first-year student can see the evidence … there was no licence from the sultan (to remove the antiquities.) There were military commanders at the Acropolis who were bribed with money and lavish gifts.”
With Johnson on the ropes now and facing calls even from within his own party to resign after revelations of parties being held by government officials in violation of COVID-19 health measures, Robertson said the time is ripe to squeeze harder for the marbles’ return. “People are sick and tired of politicians telling lies,” he said.
He said diplomacy hasn’t worked and won’t and urged legal action, which Mitsotakis has been reluctant to take although it was tried by a former New Democracy lawyer which hired British lawyer Amal Clooney – wife of actor George Clooney, who wants the marbles return.
That case was dropped by a successive government, the Radical Left SYRIZA when then-Premier Alexis Tsipras, an anti-nationalist, said the marbles belonged to the world and not to Greece and that he wouldn’t use the courts to try to get them back.
But the Mitsotakis government is trying heightened diplomacy and offering to loan the British Museum other Greek architectural gems if the marbles are sent back to Greece, which opened a new Acropolis Museum in 2009 with a top windowed floor in the shadow of the Parthenon to display them.
Another pro-British government newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, is also softening its opposition to the return of the stolen marbles after Johnson was said to have told the paper he never wanted them sent back although he did, essentially lying again.
“We are ready to offer the UK rotating exhibitions of antiquities that have never before been seen abroad,” said Chatzivasileiou. “We have told them ‘your rooms in the British Museum will never be empty of Greek treasures’. We want to solve this issue once and for all.”