At the beginning of the year, several press organizations announced the possibility of a deal to return the ancient friezes of the Acropolis. Greece, and in January the British Museum in London confirmed it was in talks with Athens about a possible loan. But, after some time, the British government refused this offer and refused to return the pieces to their native country.
The meeting between the British Prime Minister was cancelled Rishi Sunakand its Greek counterpart, Kiriakos Mitsotakis, which will take place in London this Tuesday (28/11), sent a clear signal of the escalation of the problem between London and Athens. There is even talk of diplomatic corruption.
British cabinet spokesman Mark Harper justified the cancellation by stating that the British position on the matter could not be changed. The so-called Elgin Marbles should be in the collection of the British Museum, he said.
Mitsotakis expressed annoyance at the cancellation of the meeting and said he was outraged. “Greece’s positions on the issue of the Parthenon sculptures are well known,” he said. “I was looking forward to the opportunity to discuss key international challenges with my British colleague: Gaza, Ukraine, Climate crisis, Migration.” Mitsotakis denied an alternative meeting with Sunak’s deputy, Oliver Dowden.
Greece wants the Elgin Marbles back
On Sunday, before canceling the British meeting, the Greek leader announced to London that he would insist on the return of the Parthenon friezes. “They’ll be fine inside Acropolis MuseumA state-of-the-art facility built for this purpose,” Greece told British broadcaster BBC.
Mitsotakis controversially said that sharing this art treasure in more than one place at once would be like cutting Leonardo da Vinci’s world-famous painting Mona Lisa in two and displaying it at the Louvre Museum in Paris at the same time. , and in the British Museum in London.
At the same time, he pledged that Athens would be interested in a partnership with the British Museum. The company’s chairman, George Osborne, recently spoke of a loan to Greece, but with a guarantee that the Elgin marbles would be returned to London. For Sunak, however, as his spokesperson clarified, even debt is out of the question.
However, there are some signs of a change in the climate surrounding the dispute. This Tuesday (28/11), a conservative British newspaper The Times, who previously supported the government’s position, defended the withdrawal of the pieces. “The sculpture’s place is in Athens,” the publication said in an editorial, adding that they are a fundamental part of Greek cultural identity.
Vatican returns sculptures to Parthenon
In March 2023, the Vatican returned some pieces of the Parthenon frieze to Greece. Friezes adorn the top of the outer wall of the 2,500-year-old Parthenon temple on the Acropolis in Athens.
Statues and offerings were made to the goddess Athena during the processions at the great festival in ancient Athens. Currently, part of the frieze is in the Acropolis Museum, but most of it is in the British Museum in London. Other parts are spread across French, German, Italian and Austrian museums.
In the United Kingdom, 56 pieces of the 75-meter-long Parthenon frieze found in London are believed to have been obtained through legal means. Greece, in turn, claims they were stolen. The stalemate between the Greeks and the English over the friezes had been going on for a long time.
In the United Kingdom, the pieces were named the Elgin Marbles in reference to Lord Elgin, the former British Ambassador to Constantinople in the Ottoman Empire. It was he who ordered the removal of fragments from the exterior of the Parthenon temple on the Acropolis in Athens in the early 19th century.They were brought to the United Kingdom under the agreement of the Ottoman Empire, which dominated Greece.
The return of the sculptures became an election issue in Greece earlier in the year. Mitsotakis, appointed prime minister in June 2023, has made restoring Fries a part of his campaign strategy.
Recently, the Prime Minister spoke of “progress” and a “sense of momentum” in the talks, while the British Museum did not acknowledge that discussions were taking place.
England insists it bought the sculptures legally. “This issue is at the heart of the debate about restitution,” said Alexander Herman, deputy director of the Institute of Arts and Law and author of the book. Restoration: The Return of Cultural Artifacts (“Restitution: The Return of Cultural Artifacts”, in free translation) from 2021.
“For more than 200 years, the topic has been on the cultural agenda in England and, of course, Greece,” Hermann told DW in a 2021 interview.
LEGAL BARRIERS TO REFUNDS
In contrast to what is happening in the United Kingdom, the debate surrounding the restoration of works of art has gained momentum in many European countries and even in the United States. The British Museum has refused all requests for restitution to date. Meanwhile, Germany agreed to return to the so-called Bronzes of Benin to Nigeria. In France, the recovery of colonial objects has also become a major theme of the country’s cultural policy.
But even if the British wanted to return the Frisians to Greece, a national law would have to be repealed. The British Museum Act 1963 prohibits the institution from withdrawing items from its collection as the assets are considered national heritage. In this way, the Parthenon friezes could be loaned to Greece, which would not be sufficient for Athens.
A spokesman for Prime Minister Sunak has already said there are no plans to change the law. “Our position on this issue has not changed,” he said in December 2022. “Decisions regarding the maintenance and management of the collections are the responsibility of the museum and its administrators. The Parthenon sculptures are legally the property of the administrators and are functionally independent of the government,” he said.
A meeting between the leaders of England and Greece was canceled, a clear demonstration that the British have not budged an inch on their position.
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