ATHENS — Greece on Wednesday lent Italy an ancient statue of the goddess Athena, to be displayed in a Sicilian museum for four years in return for Italy’s long-term loan to Athens of a fragment of the celebrated Parthenon Sculptures.
The late 5th century B.C. headless marble work was discovered during excavations near the Parthenon Temple, dedicated to Athena, goddess of wisdom, on the Acropolis and belongs to the Acropolis Museum.
Greek Culture Minister Lina Mendoni, who travelled to Palermo’s A. Salinas Archaeological Museum for the handover, said the gesture “reciprocates the generosity” of the Italian institution that sent the fragment to Greece last month. Theoretically, it will stay in Athens for a maximum of eight years but the ultimate aim, Italian and Greek officials say, is its “indefinite return” to Athens.
Greece hopes the loan of the small Italian fragment — part of a 160-meter-long (520-foot) frieze that ran around the outer walls of the Parthenon — will boost its campaign for the return from London of the British Museum’s part of the Parthenon Sculptures.
About half the surviving 5th century B.C. works were removed in the early 19th century by a British diplomat, Lord Elgin, and remain in London despite repeated Greek requests for their repatriation.
Mendoni described the works in London as “the proceeds of theft” by Elgin.
“Greece recognizes no rights of ownership or possession” to the works by the British Museum, she said. “(The deal with Italy) indicates the path that London can follow.”
“It is a great joy and honour for me to be with you, together with the general director of the Acropolis Museum and my associates, in order to return the generosity contained in the initiative by the regional government of Sicily…to not only give the Fagan fragment from the Parthenon frieze for lengthy exhibition in the Acropolis Museum but also to ask the Italian culture ministry for its permanent repatriation in Athens,” Mendoni said.
“The return and reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures in Athens is a moral obligation for all of Europe, in the context of protecting our common cultural heritage. And the greatest strength for their reunification is the faith of the European themselves, as that of British citizens, in the importance of the Parthenon, this supreme monument for European culture,” the minister noted, stressing that Greece views the architectural Parthenon sculptures at the British Museum as the proceeds of theft.
“Greece does not recognise any right of ownership, possession and exploitation of these. On the contrary, it is constitutionally obliged and morally justified in demanding and striving for their final, permanent and irrevocable return by any legal and available means, in order to restore justice and the moral order and chiefly to restore the integrity of the monument,” she added.
Mendoni noted that the agreement with the Sicilian government envisaged the loan of two significant ancient artifacts from the Acropolis Museum collection to Palermo for a period of four years, saying that this indicated the path that London can follow in this regard.
The statue of Athena from the Acropolis Museum dates between 420-400 B.C. and shows the goddess leaning on her spear (now lost). After four years, the statue will be replaced by a geometric pottery vase.
Mendoni relayed the greetings of Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and said that Greece is open to further cooperation with Sicily and is willing to entrust it with certain artifacts relating to the myth and form of Ulysses to be included in an exhibition dedicated to the mythic hero.
The London museum says the sculptures were legitimately acquired by Elgin from Turkish authorities when Greece was still under occupation by the Ottoman Empire.
The statue of Athena will be displayed in Italy until 2026, when it will be replaced by an 8th century B.C. Greek vase, again on loan for four years.