The recently elected Greek prime minister has put forward a suggestion to overcome the impasse between Greece and the UK over the Parthenon Marbles, which have been at the centre of a longstanding repatriation dispute.
Appealing to the UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s interest in Ancient Greece, Kyriakos Mitsotakis told the Observer newspaper that he would be willing to lend “important artefacts that have never left Greece” in exchange for the marbles returning on loan to Athens for the 2021 bicentenary of Greece's war of independence against the Ottoman Empire.
Mitsotakis said: “The Acropolis [the ancient citadel that contains the ruins of the Parthenon temple] doesn’t necessarily solely belong to Greece. It’s a monument of global cultural heritage. But if you really want to see the monument in its unity you have to see what we call the Parthenon sculptures in situ… it’s a question of uniting the monument.”
He said the proposal would not alter Greece’s claim on the sculptures, which were removed from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to Ottoman, and shipped to the UK in 1802.
“Of course our demand for the return of the sculptures remains in place,” Mitsotakis said. “I don’t think [Britain] should be fighting a losing battle. Eventually this is going to be a losing battle. At the end of the day there is going to be mounting pressure on this issue.”
Mitsotakis’s proposal was shot down by Alex Tsipras, the former Greek prime minister who was ousted in July and is now the main opposition leader. He wrote on Facebook that the proposal was a “naive initiative [that] allows the British Museum to appear as the rightful owner”.
A spokeswoman from the British Museum said the discussion was “speculative” at the moment, and added that the museum had not had any direct contact with the new Greek government. “From our perspective we’re very happy to consider any loan request but it’s hard to say anything beyond that,” she said.
Subsequent media reports in the UK and Greece suggested that the British Museum had “torpedoed” the proposal by insisting that Athens must first acknowledge its ownership of the artefacts. The spokeswoman said these reports had been blown out of proportion. She said the museum had been responding to a general query about the preconditions that would be placed on any loan, one of which would be the acceptance of the museum's ownership.
In a statement, the British Museum said: “The trustees will consider any loan request for any part of the collection. As yet there has been no direct contact from the Greek authorities regarding the proposal made over the weekend, though the museum collaborates with Greek museums and institutions on a number of projects. As a trustee-length body, any loan of the collection would be a matter for the trustees of the British Museum, not the UK government.”