The Greek government has put renewed pressure on Britain to return the Parthenon Marbles to the country.
Greek culture minister Lydia Koniordou wrote to Jeremy Wright, the culture secretary, inviting UK officials to Greece to discuss the return of the ancient sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles.
The sculptures have been displayed in the British Museum since the early 19th century, after they were transported from Greece by Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin. They originally formed part of the Temple of Parthenon and other sites across Greece.
Their retention has been a long-running source of anger in Greece. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn recently pledged to return the sculptures if he becomes Prime Minister.
The new move comes as Greece emerges from austerity measures imposed by the European Union (EU). As an EU member state, it must ratify any future Brexit deal the UK strikes with the EU.
Critics of Britain’s retention of the marbles have claimed that their removal from Greece amounted to looting, though Elgin claimed to have gained permission from the government of the Ottoman Empire to take the sculptures.
A 2014 YouGov poll found that 37% of the British public support their return, compared to 23% who oppose it. The remainder were indifferent or did not have an opinion.
The Greek government has been unable to force their return through legal proceedings, though their role in approving a Brexit deal could provide them with new leverage.
“The Parthenon sculptures are the legal property of the British Museum,” a British government spokesperson said. “They are free of charge to view and are visited by people from all over the world. Decisions relating to their care are taken by the trustees of the British Museum, free from political interference.”
Opponents of the move have previously suggested that returning the marbles would set a precedent that would see many of the world’s major galleries lose exhibits. The British Museum has also noted that around half of the original marbles remain on display in Greece.
“The Parthenon sculptures in London are an important representation of ancient Athenian civilisation in the context of world history,” a British Museum spokesperson said: “Each year millions of visitors, free of charge, admire the artistry of the sculptures and gain insight into how ancient Greece influenced and was influenced by the other civilisations that it encountered.
“The trustees firmly believe that there is a positive advantage and public benefit in having the sculptures divided between two great museums, each telling a complementary but different story.”