The Greek prime minister has demanded that the 2,500-year-old Parthenon marbles be returned to Athens and has repeated an offer to loan some of his country’s treasures to the British Museum in an attempt to broker a deal.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis told the Daily Telegraph that the sculptures, also known as the Elgin marbles, belong in the Acropolis Museum at the foot of the Periclean masterpiece.
The leader made the proposal ahead of talks in London with the British prime minister on Tuesday.
Boris Johnson has previously ruled out returning them on the grounds that the antiquities were acquired legally.
Mitsotakis said: “Our position is very clear. The marbles were stolen in the 19th century; they belong in the Acropolis Museum and we need to discuss this issue in earnest.
“I am sure that if there was a willingness on the part of the government to move we could find an arrangement with the British Museum in terms of us sending abroad cultural treasures on loan, which have never left the country.”
The marbles were removed from the Parthenon temple more than 200 years ago by Lord Elgin, then British ambassador to the Sublime Porte in Istanbul, in circumstances that have spurred one of the world’s most famous cultural rows and have long been the subject of dispute.
Mitsotakis said he would raise the issue with Johnson when the pair met next week for talks that could shape future relations between the two countries.
“Refusing to discuss the topic seems to me, given the context of everything that has been happening in terms of the return of cultural treasures, to be rather an anachronistic approach,” he added.
“It would be a fantastic statement by what Boris calls Global Britain if they were to move on this and look at it through a completely different lens.”
Tuesday’s talks will be the first face-to-face meeting between the two men in which the cultural row is formally raised. Mitsotakis, whose centre-right government assumed power in July 2019, has repeatedly described the marbles as the most important link, symbolically, between the modern Greeks and their ancestors.
Late Friday, as world leaders gathered in Paris to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Unesco, the Greek prime minister used the occasion to highlight that this year also marked the 200th anniversary of Greece’s war of independence, which led to the formation of the modern Greek state. As such, he said, there was “no better time than now” to return the monumental carvings.
“The UK should move to a bona fide dialogue with Greece. And I urge them to do so. After all, this year marks the 200th anniversary of Greece’s war of independence. There could be no better time than now, in which to reunite the missing section of the Parthenon sculptures – in their birthplace – in Greece,” he told the assembled heads of state.
The Greek government has been encouraged by what Mitsotakis also described as a “pivotal step” this September by the UN agency’s advisory committee promoting the return of cultural property.
“For the first time, it unanimously adopted a decision recognising that the ‘case has an intergovernmental character and therefore the obligation to return the Parthenon sculptures lies squarely on the UK government,’” he said.
Successive British governments have argued that calls for the marbles’ return are a matter for the British Museum to decide, since the treasures have been displayed there since 1816.
Greek demands for repatriation have been further fuelled by revelations of water damage in the Duveen galleries where the “exiled” frieze, metopes and pedimental sculptures that once adorned the Acropolis are exhibited. A leaky roof has meant the carvings have been off-limits to the public for almost a year, with the British Museum’s website noting that “due to regular maintenance works” its Greek rooms are “temporarily closed”.
Athens had been hoping that as a classicist who visits the country where his father owns a summer villa, Johnson would take a more conciliatory approach to the contentious issue.
However, the British prime minister dismissed the appeal for their return to Greece earlier this year, telling the Greek newspaper Ta Nea: “I understand the strong feelings of the Greek people – and indeed Prime Minister Mitsotakis – on the issue.
“But the UK government has a firm, longstanding position on the sculptures, which is that they were legally acquired by Lord Elgin under the appropriate laws of the time and have been legally owned by the British Museum’s trustees since their acquisition.”
Athens has long called for the reunification of the sculptures, displayed in museums across Europe but mostly in London, arguing that seeing the marbles in situ is integral to understanding the artworks in the context of the Acropolis.