Could Britain, Greece Be Nearing Compromise Over Elgin Marbles?
From London and Athens come hints of an end to a longstanding dispute.
Could the world’s longest layover be coming to a close? There are signs the famed Parthenon sculptures now in the British Museum could soon be heading back to their original home in Greece.
The saga of the iconic ancient Greek statuary is well known: A Scottish nobleman and ambassador to the Ottoman Empire when Greece was still a part of it, Lord Elgin, had them stripped from atop the Acropolis in 1801 and subsequently shipped to England.
In an article in Britain’s Spectator magazine this month, the chairman of the British Museum, George Osborne, confirmed that the London institution is “exploring with the Greeks whether there’s a way to solve this 200-year-old dispute.” Mr. Osborne repeated remarks by a former British prime minister, Boris Johnson, who previously wrote that “the Elgin Marbles should leave this northern whisky-drinking guilt culture, and be displayed where they belong: in a country of bright sunlight and the landscape of Achilles.”
Mr. Osbourne wrote that it was “worth trying” to see if the 2,500-year-old sculptures “can be seen both in London and Athens, while treasures currently in Greece could be seen by new audiences here.” That kind of a swap, which might be less palatable for Greece, which claims outright ownership of the fifth-century B.C. sculptures, now has some precedent.
Earlier this month, the Vatican and Greece finalized a deal for the return of three sculpture fragments from the Parthenon that have been in the collection of the Vatican Museums for two centuries. According to that agreement, which was framed as a donation, the sculptures are slated to arrive at Athens by March 25, which is Greek Independence Day.
Last month the Greek minister of culture, Lina Mendoni, traveled to New York where, at the Manhattan district attorney’s office, she signed off on the repatriation of 47 illegally trafficked Greek antiquities that had found their way into the collection of Michael Steinhardt, the world’s largest private collector of ancient art.
Ahead of that ceremony, Ms. Mendoni said that “the issue of the return and reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures in Athens is a priority” for the Greek government and that “the majority of the international public opinion, including that of the United Kingdom, is in favor of the Greek request and the return of the sculptures to Athens.”
But both that development and the Vatican deal are largely peripheral to the momentum for the return building in more apposite quarters than Manhattan and the edge of Rome — namely, Athens and London. The contours of such a plan have already been hammered out, if only in general terms, by Mr. Osbourne and Greece’s prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, when the two met at London’s Berkeley Hotel in November 2021.
Subsequent to that meeting, Lord Ed Vaizey, the Tory peer and former British culture secretary who heads a campaign to return the marbles to Athens, told the Financial Times, “I think the climate is better than it has been for 200 years to resolve this.”
Negotiators will have to navigate between a law by which the British Museum can only release items in its collection in very limited circumstances and the longstanding Greek claim of outright ownership of the marbles.
Legal hurdles aside, there are fresh clues as to which way the return winds are blowing from the Acropolis itself, where restoration work is ongoing. Originally the marble frieze, a continuous carved relief of Olympian gods and goddesses, Greek heroes, and warriors, ran behind the columns, inside and around the walls that formed the main temple of the Parthenon.
According to the director of the Acropolis Restoration Service, Vasiliki Eleftheriou, the long walls of the temple “suffered great damage from the explosion of 1687 and with them the parts of the frieze that rested on them. Elgin’s crews continued this destruction by cutting and stripping the frieze at the ends of the walls where it had not collapsed.”
Right now 246 feet of the original frieze are on display in the British Museum, while portions of it and other architectural elements are in the new Acropolis Museum — where an area has already been set aside to house the errant marbles. But, Ms. Elefthriou told the Sun, “When the restoration of the [Parthenon] temple walls will be completed with the surviving marbles and new additions in these areas, parts of the frieze could also be added.”
That is something no British newspaper has reported yet, but in terms of the archaeological case for the marbles’ return, the notion that some of them could actually be hoisted back into their original, Pericles-era place makes for a startling admission.
It resonates with subtle cues from no less an address than Buckingham Palace itself. Last month King Charles received the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, for tea in the context of the Windsor Framework, the post-Brexit trade deal concerning Northern Ireland. The monarch was criticized by many for doing so but lauded by the Times of London, which called the king’s “involvement” with Anglo-EU relations a show of “how seriously Britain values these relationships.”
Coincidentally or not, the conservative newspaper has taken a position surprising to some with respect to the iconic sculptures, recently affirming that the marbles belong to Greece after 50 years of hewing to a contrary position.
Any tangible progress on a deal to bring the marbles back to Athens would of course be a huge feather in the cap of Mr. Mitsotakis, who faces a very tough re-election bid in the coming months. So, there is much tension building around the fate of these great ancient works of art, but a certain undeniable momentum too.
Mr. Grant, who has written for many major newspapers and worked in television at Paris and Tel Aviv, is now based in Athens as a staff reporter and editor of The New York Sun.