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The New York Times Shines Light on the Parthenon Marbles

NEW YORK – The New York Times is the latest major international media outlet to spotlight apparent progress in the efforts to return the Parthenon Marbles to Greece, reporting that, “the British Museum and Greece’s prime minister are getting closer to a deal on returning the so-called Elgin Marbles to Athens. But key differences remain.”

The article, titled ‘After 220 Years, the Fate of the Parthenon Marbles Rests in Secret Talks’, was written by London-based Alex Marshall, who has been reporting on Parthenon sculptures since 2018. He introduced the topic by noting: “Torn in some cases from the temple walls, ostensibly with the permission of the Ottomans who then ruled Greece, the so-called Elgin Marbles were later sold to the British government and became some of the most storied artifacts in the collection of the British Museum. But they also became, almost from the very day they were removed, the subject of perhaps the world’s most notorious cultural dispute.”

He explained that, “the British say the marbles were legally acquired and are best shown alongside other artifacts in a universal museum, while the Greeks view them as looted treasures that are a foundation of their national heritage. The debate has only deepened in recent years as the actions of old empires have come under new scrutiny, and restitution battles have come to challenge the foundations of Western museums.”

Noting that there is growing pressure to return the marbles as museums “have given back high-profile items including Benin Bronzes, Italian antiquities and other fragments from the Parthenon that were relinquished just last month by the Vatican,” he adds that, “now there are hopeful signals that perhaps a resolution between the British Museum and Greece could be in sight as officials on both sides have acknowledged that secret talks have taken place.”

Marshall admits, however that, “indeed, they remain far apart on some key questions,” after talks in London that began November, 2021 between Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis of Greece and George Osborne, the chairman of the British Museum.
Marshall has spoken to “two people with knowledge of the negotiations who were granted anonymity to discuss confidential talks. One of those people had knowledge of the Greek position; the other knew the British Museum’s.”

Summarizing media speculation the article notes that, “one article last month in the Greek newspaper Ta Nea, which broke news of the talks, said they were ‘90 percent’ complete, citing ‘well-placed’ Greek sources. Bloomberg reported earlier this month that the parties were ‘closing in’ on a deal…. Under the discussed proposal, the Bloomberg article said, some of the monuments would return to Athens temporarily, in exchange for other ancient treasures.”

According to Marshall’s sources, however, “a deal remains much further away than those reports suggest… And, in fact, in recent days officials from both sides have spoken publicly to pump the brakes on the soaring expectations that any deal was imminent.”

GREEKS SAY, BRITS SAY

The article then details what Marshall was told:

“For his part, Mitsotakis has asked the British Museum to return all of the frieze in its collection, some 250 feet of carved stone that once wrapped around the Parthenon, the person with knowledge of the Greek position said. Mitsotakis wanted an agreement that those panels would stay in Greece for at least 20 years, the person added. There, they would be reunited with other parts of the frieze already on display in the Acropolis Museum in Athens.

“That person said Mitsotakis hoped that, after 20 years, the agreement would be extended so the frieze panels would remain in Athens.

“The Greek side hoped to negotiate the return of the remaining sculptures at a later date, the person with knowledge of its position added. In return for the frieze, Greek museums would supply the British Museum with a rotating selection of priceless artifacts, some of which had never left Greece, the person added.

“The British Museum wants a different deal, according to the person with knowledge of its position. So far, Osborne has suggested returning a smaller portion of the frieze, as well as carvings of gods and centaurs, as a short-term loan, the person said. The museum could offer up to a third of the Parthenon artifacts in its collection, the person added.

“Once Greece returned those artifacts to London, more would be sent to Athens to replace them, the person said. Over time, the number of artifacts sent to Greece would increase, to reflect growing trust between the two sides, the person added.

“The British Museum’s view is that it cannot offer more, even if it wanted to, the person with knowledge of its position said. Under British law, the museum cannot remove items from its collection unless they are ‘unfit to be retained,’ though it is free to loan objects to other institutions. The museum argues that Lord Elgin… acquired the artifacts legally, after administrators of the Ottoman Empire, which governed Athens at the time, gave him a permit. It also insists the sculptures are best presented among the museum’s global collections, so that they tell part of a broader story about human civilization.

“If any agreement with the Greek government did not include a provision that the marbles must return to London, it could be challenged in Britain’s courts. But any deal would be written in a way that did not require Greece to give up its claim for ownership of the artifacts, the person with knowledge of the museum’s position said.”

MUSEUM: NO COMMENT, BUT

The British Museum did not comment on the negotiations, but Marshall quoted a museum spokesman’s email: “We’re actively seeking a new Parthenon partnership with our friends in Greece, and, as we enter a new year, constructive discussions are ongoing.”

With an informal offer and a counteroffer on the table, the talks have reached a stage that “had not been seen before,” the person on the Greek side said. Both parties were “negotiating in good faith,” the person added, but they did not expect more progress until after Greece held parliamentary elections later this year.

GOOD TIMING?

The British Museum is expected “to announce a major renovation including roof and heating system upgrades that could result in some galleries being shut for long periods. The project is expected to cost 1 billion pounds, around $1.2 billion, according to a report in The Financial Times,” the Times reported.

Marshall continues, however, by noting that, “aside from the two camps’ differing offers, there is another major stumbling block: whether British and Greek lawmakers would accept a deal. The British government said last year that it does not plan to change the law and allow a full restitution of the marbles. On Wednesday, Michelle Donelan, Britain’s culture minister, told the BBC that returning the artifacts would open a ‘complete can of worms’ and could lead to demands for other items in the museum. ‘Sending them back is a dangerous road to go down.”

On the other hand, Marshall writes, “it was also unclear whether Greece would accept a ‘partnership’ if that implied that the marbles belong to the British Museum. Sia Anagnostopoulou, a Greek lawmaker from the opposition Syriza party who is the party’s spokeswoman on culture, said in an email that she opposed any deal that did not make it clear that the marbles are Greece’s rightful property, and that a loan would be unacceptable. ‘It is a matter of dignity for all Greeks,’ she said, ‘as it would be for the British people, if they were asked to temporarily ‘borrow’ stolen pieces of Stonehenge.’”

“Legal experts and museum administrators worldwide are watching the situation closely,” Marshall continued, and noted that, “last year, a survey by YouGov, a polling agency, said 59 percent of Britons believed the sculptures belonged in Greece. But public opinion is unlikely to be the deciding factor in the negotiations.”

Summarizing the situation, Alexander Herman, the director of the Institute of Art and Law in London that every few years “there is what seems to be a glimmer of hope,” but Marshal added, “then the process stalls.

The same thing could happen now,” Marshal reports Herman said, but the latter added both Mitsotakis and Osborne were “practically minded” businessmen…if there are two people who can sit in a room and work it out it’ll probably be people like those two.”

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