For the first time, the British Museum has confirmed that it is in talks with Greece over a landmark agreement that would see some of the Parthenon Marbles return to Athens.
Last month, the Greek newspaper Ta Nea reported that the two parties had been secretly meeting for months about the contested antiquities, which have been on view in the British Museum since 1832, after they were stripped from the Acropolis in Athens by the Scottish nobleman Lord Elgin. While British Museum chairman George Osborne has in recent months signaled a willingness to forge a deal to settle the centuries-old controversy, neither he nor the museum trustees confirmed that discussions had begun.
On January 3, Bloomberg reported that Osborne and the Acropolis Museum in Athens are “closing in” on a loan agreement that could entail a “proportion of the marbles sent to Athens on rotation over several years.” Bloomberg’s anonymous sources said that the potential detail could include a cultural exchange of objects with the Athens institution, and that Osborne was reportedly considering putting on display plaster copies of the Parthenon sculptures.
A spokesperson for the British Museum told the Guardian, “We’ve said publicly we’re actively seeking a new Parthenon partnership with our friends in Greece and as we enter a new year constructive discussions are ongoing.”
The British Museum has been under intensifying pressure in recent years to acknowledge Greece’s claim to the marbles, as the debate around the ownership of artworks looted during periods of colonization has shifted worldwide.
Throughout the controversy, the U.K. government has maintained that decisions regarding the British Museum’s collection are outside its legal purview. For its part, the museum has said that sculptures were obtained legally by Elgin, who was granted permission for the operation by the Ottoman powers occupying Greece in the 19th century.
“We’re not going to dismantle our great collection as it tells a unique story of our common humanity,” the museum said in a statement last month, before adding that it was “seeking new positive, long term partnerships with countries and communities around the world, and that of course includes Greece.”
Fragments of the original Parthenon frieze are scattered in museums across Europe but have been slowly making their way back to Greece.
In May, Italy announced that a fragment belonging to the Parthenon’s eastern frieze on loan from a Sicilian museum would remain in Athens. The artifact, depicting the foot of the goddess Artemis peeking out from a tunic, was returned as part of a four-year loan agreement between Greece and the Antonio Salinas Archaeological Museum in Palermo.
More recently, the Vatican promised to relinquish three fragments of the Parthenon Marbles housed in the Vatican Museums. In the announcement, the Vatican described the move as a “donation” from the Pope to the Greek Orthodox Church, and said it was “a concrete sign of his sincere desire to follow in the ecumenical path of truth.”