It would be the culmination of a forty-year-old feud. The sculpted Parthenon marbles preserved in the UK could ” soon “ be handed over to Greece thanks to a historic agreement being finalized between the British Museum in London and Athens, reports the British newspaper The TelegraphTuesday, January 3.
A British law of 1963 prohibits the museum from transferring or selling objects from its collection. But its president and former finance minister, George Osborne, has found a solution that would circumvent this obstacle: the agreement would provide, according to the sources quoted by The Telegraphrepatriation ” as soon as possible “ Greek antiquities as part of a ” cultural exchange “. In other words, these would be long-term loans.
“We are actively seeking a new partnership regarding the Parthenon with our friends in Greece and as we enter a new year, discussions are ongoing”a spokesman for the British Museum confirmed to Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Wednesday.
Greek media had already reported in December 2022 that secret negotiations had been going on for a year between Mr Osborne and the Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
dialogue of the deaf
Located on the Acropolis of Athens, the Parthenon is one of the most famous vestiges of Antiquity, listed as a UNESCO cultural heritage site. It was built in the Ve century BC, but the oldest archaeological traces of this three-hectare site date back to the second millennium BC. In ancient Greece, the temple was dedicated to the goddess Athena before being transformed into a church and then a mosque. The Parthenon has not been a place of worship since it was partially destroyed by the Venetians in 1687 and then looted.
Even if the negotiation succeeds, it is ” unlikely “ that all the pieces held by the British Museum be returned to Greece immediately, believes The Telegraph. Initially, the agreement could materialize “by a small symbolic loan”. But, still according to the British newspaper, Athens is determined to obtain the full restitution and full ownership of its national treasures: a 75-meter frieze detached from the Parthenon, as well as one of the caryatids (statue of a woman in place, in architecture , column) of the Erechtheion, a temple that also stands on the Acropolis.
If the United Kingdom asserts that these marbles were acquired legally, Greece maintains that they were the object of a “looting” when the country was under Ottoman occupation. Let’s resume. In 1802, the British ambassador to Constantinople, Lord Elgin, transferred half of the building’s 160-metre frieze to London. And he resells it to England.
The conflict between the two countries was officially opened in 1983 by actress Melina Mercouri, then Greek Minister of Culture. The estrangement quickly turns into a dialogue of the deaf. London points out that Lord Elgin negotiated with the relevant authority at the time, the Ottoman Empire. Athens replies that the said empire did not represent its people. London repeats that its diplomat acted legally. Subsequently, Athens opposes research showing that the British ambassador only obtained a loan, which became a theft. New reply from London, which argues that the frieze has the status of “common heritage of humanity” and that the British Museum (6 million visitors per year) allows everyone to admire them. Athens retorts that these masterpieces are constitutive of its identity.
For years, the London museum also argued that Greece had no place worthy of the name to display and protect the marbles. An argument defeated in 2019, when the country inaugurated the very successful Acropolis Museum. An entire floor of the building reconstructs the four sides of the temple in real size, with the pieces of frieze that remained in Greece. Those exhibited in London are replaced by casts. Waiting for their return… This is how former President Prokopis Pavlopoulos opposes “the luminous museum” from Athens to “the dark prison” from the British Museum.
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The battle led by Greece does not only concern the United Kingdom: the country has been trying for several decades to recover other fragments of the Parthenon scattered in various museums around the world. Some are in the Louvre in Paris, others are in Vienna in Austria, or in Würzburg in Germany.
Some pieces have already made their return to Greece. In January 2022, a piece of frieze representing a foot of Artemis, goddess of the hunt, was loaned by Italy to Athens for at least eight years. In December 2022, Pope Francis announced the return to the Orthodox Archbishop of Athens of three fragments of the Parthenon, kept in the Vatican Museums. In 2008, the Holy See had already returned to Greece a fragment from the frieze, which had been offered to it at the beginning of the 19th century.e century.