UK government sceptical about ‘Elgin marbles’ return to Greece
George Osborne, the British Museum’s chairman, has been in talks with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis over a possible return.
Greece first made a formal request for the return of the Parthenon sculptures in 1983. The museum’s ongoing policy is that it will consider loans to countries that do not claim ownership of objects, which normally ended up in Britain as a consequence of imperial looting. Greece has rejected suggestions that it would borrow or loan the controversially named Elgin marbles, as that would acknowledge British ownership. Mitsotakis is under domestic political pressure to restore the sculptures to Greek ownership.
An agreement may include returning the sculptures to Greece, where the authorities have built a museum for them, in exchange for other treasures being loaned to the British Museum.
But a spokesman for UK Prime Minister Rish Sunak said: “We have no plans to change the law, which prevents removing objects from the British Museum’s collection, apart from in certain circumstances.
“Our position on this hasn’t changed. Decisions relating to the care and management of the collections are a matter for the museum and its trustees.
The contentious sculptures are legally owned by the trustees and operationally independent of the UK government.
Osborne, who is remembered as the finance minister in 2016 who bungled the Brexit referendum campaign, reportedly met Mitsotakis at a luxury hotel on Monday to discuss the sculptures. They first held “exploratory talks” in November 2021 at the Greek ambassador’s Mayfair residence, according to Greece’s Ta Nea newspaper.
The marble frieze was hacked from the Parthenon in Athens in 1801 under the orders of Lord Elgin, Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman empire, with what he claimed was the permission of the occupying authorities.
Elgin sold the marbles to the London government in 1816 and their ownership was transferred to the British Museum’s trustees. More than 75 metres of the 2,500-year-old Parthenon marbles and 17 pedimental figures have since been displayed in London and are regarded as a highlight of a visit to possibly the world’s most important museum.
A British Museum representative said the institution wanted a “new Parthenon partnership” with Greece but added that it abided by English law “and we’re not going to dismantle our great collection as it tells a unique story of our common humanity”.
Picture credit: Wikimedia