The 200-year-old dispute over ownership of the Parthenon Marbles may soon end, following a report that secret talks between the British Museum and Greece to return the artworks are in “advanced stages.”
According to Ta Nea, the Athens newspaper which broke the news Saturday, George Osborne, the chair of the British Museum, and Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Greek prime minister, met in London last week to discuss the fate of the 2,500-year-old marble relief panels, figures, and friezes.
The Art Newspaper reports that Osborne and Mitsotakis gave an address at the London School of Economics during which Mitsotakis said that the permanent return of the 2,500-year-old sculptures was “possible.”
“A win-win solution can be found that will result in the reunification of the Parthenon sculptures in Greece, while at the same time taking into account concerns that the British Museum may have,” Mitsotakis said.
Sources told Ta Nea that the secret discussions between leadership at the British Museum and members of Mitsotakis’ administration have taken place since November 2021. If an agreement is reached, the sculptures will return to Greece in early 2023, and will be exhibited in the new Acropolis Museum in Athens.
The sculptures, comprising fifteen metopes, seventeen pedimental figures, and a section of a frieze depicting a festival procession, were taken from Athens in 1801 by the Scottish diplomat Lord Elgin during the Ottoman occupation of Greece. Elgin sold them to the British government in 1816 and, for nearly two centuries, the sculptures have been housed in the British Museum as the centerpiece of its Greek galleries.
During the restitution debate, the U.K. government has maintained that decisions regarding the British Museum’s collection are outside of its legal purview. For its part, the museum has claimed that Ottoman leaders granted Elgin permission for the excavation, while Greece has rejected the notion that occupying powers have authority over cultural heritage.
The Greek government made its first formal request for the return of the Parthenon Marbles in 1983, which was rebuffed. The British Museum has recently faced pressure to acknowledge Greece’s claim to the marbles, as the conversation around the ownership of artworks looted during periods of colonization has shifted at museum around the world. Supporters of their return to Greece argue that the British Museum does not have the capability to ensure the sculptures’ preservation, following reports that aging infrastructure in the Greek galleries has caused water leaks and poor ventilation. In 2009, Greece unveiled a five-story glass-enclosed museum at the foot of the Acropolis custom-built for the display of ancient statuary.
A deal for the permanent return of the sculptures to Greece would be a sharp pivot in the British Museum’s stance. At the institution’s annual trustees’ dinner in November, Osborne said that while “long-term partnerships could be struck,” the restitution of the Parthenon Marbles or other artifacts taken during Britain’s imperial period to their countries of origin was not an option.
“We hear the voices calling for restitution,” he said, “but creating this global British Museum was the dedicated work of many generations. Dismantling it must not become the careless act of a single generation.”
In a statement released on Saturday, the British Museum said it was willing to “talk to anyone, including the Greek government” about a new Parthenon “partnership.”
The statement continued: “As the Chair of Trustees said last month, we operate within the law and we’re not going to dismantle our great collection as it tells a unique story of our common humanity. But we are seeking new positive, long term partnerships with countries and communities around the world, and that of course includes Greece.”