Greece to step up Parthenon marbles pressure amid signs tide is turning

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Greece to step up Parthenon marbles pressure amid signs tide is turning
© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Thanassis Stavrakis/AP

Greece has vowed to intensify its campaign for the reunification of the Parthenon sculptures amid “optimistic” signs that British public opinion has shifted markedly in favour of returning the prized “Elgin” marbles to Athens.

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The Greek government said it would step up pressure for the fifth-century BC antiquities to be enjoyed in their entirety, within view of the Acropolis, after receiving support from an unexpected quarter of the British establishment.

“The sculptures are the most important link between the modern Greeks and their ancestors,” said Tasos Chatzivasileiou, an MP who is the Greek prime minister’s top foreign policy adviser. “Our strategy will be to turn up the heat, to keep this issue in the public sphere and to raise it at every opportunity.”

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An about-turn by the Times newspaper, arguing for the treasures to be returned to Greece, was evidence the campaign was working, he said.

Not since the early 1980s – when the former culture minister Melina Mercouri first demanded they be restored to their homeland – has the drive to retrieve the “exiled” marbles been so alive.

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For close to two centuries, the British Museum has been home to almost half of the temple’s monumental 160-metre-long frieze, considered the high point of classical art. The controversial circumstances in which the sculptures were dismantled from the Parthenon have long stirred debate.

Successive Greek governments have argued that the antiquities were stolen at a time when the stateless nation was under Ottoman rule and without a voice. The cultural row has remained the one black spot in otherwise excellent Anglo-Greek ties.

“Our bilateral relations go back centuries … but we believe they are also incomplete,” said Chatzivasileiou, who sat in on talks in Downing Street in November when the prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, formally raised the issue for the first time. “We need to work hard together to overturn an injustice that weighs heavy on the hearts of Greeks.”

But as Athens has sought to place the issue at the top of its international cultural agenda, people have also rallied to the cause.

In a YouGov poll conducted days after the Greek leader’s meeting with Boris Johnson, 59% of Britons said they believed the antiquities belonged in Greece. Increasingly, actors, writers, barristers and politicians have weighed in, calling for them to be reunited with carvings that survived being sawed from the temple when Lord Elgin, England’s then ambassador to the Ottoman empire, sent in workmen to remove “as much as possible” in 1801.

Johnson, a passionate advocate of the antiquities’ repatriation as a classics student at Oxford University, contends the artworks were legally acquired upon receipt of a permit from the Sublime Porte. Like his predecessors, he has also said the dispute should be discussed with the museum’s trustees despite Unesco recently ruling that it is a matter for both governments to resolve.

On its website, the British Museum asserts the diplomat not only “acted with the full knowledge and permission of the legal authorities of the day in both Athens and London” but that his “activities were thoroughly investigated by a parliamentary select committee in 1816 and found to be entirely legal”. Bankrupt and despondent, Elgin sold the collection to the museum that year for £35,000.

“The whole debate has struck a chord,” said Mitsotakis, who has frequently described London’s stance as “a losing battle” at a time when disputed cultural artefacts are being increasingly returned to their countries of origin.

Related: Will Europe’s museums rise to the challenge of decolonisation? | Dan Hicks

Greek optimism was further fuelled last week when a fragment of the Parthenon was returned to Athens from Italy in what was seen as a moral victory for the country.

The piece, which portrays a foot peeking out from beneath the robe of a goddess believed to be Artemis, belongs to the frieze’s highly prized eastern section depicting the deities of Mount Olympus.

Unveiling the sculpture on the upper floor of the Acropolis Museum, Mitsotakis said the breakthrough deal that had sealed its homecoming offered “a blueprint” for other countries, including the UK. Sculptures that once ornamented the great ancient wonder are exhibited in cultural institutions across Europe although the vast majority are in London.

“This agreement paves the way for the British Museum to enter into serious discussions with the Greek authorities in order to find a solution that will be mutually acceptable,” he told reporters.

The Times, which had maintained for more than 50 years that the marbles should remain in London, said the deal underscored what had become a “compelling case” for the sculptures’ restitution. The argument that Athens lacked an appropriate place to exhibit the carvings no longer held when “a magnificent museum next to the Acropolis” had been built to house the cultural heritage, it asserted.

The human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC, who chronicled the tactics employed by Elgin to bribe Turkish officials in the bestselling Who Owns History, said the tide was clearly turning.

“The lie told by the British Museum and echoed by the British government that the marbles were lawfully acquired is no longer sustainable,” he said. “The marbles were stolen by use of bribery and corruption – even a first-year student can see the evidence … there was no licence from the sultan [to remove the antiquities]. There were military commanders at the Acropolis who were bribed with money and lavish gifts.”

The Johnson government’s current difficulties could help, he said. “People are sick and tired of politicians telling lies.”

After so many years of failed diplomatic attempts to win back the treasures, Robertson believes that only the threat of legal action will lift the impasse.

The Mitsotakis government has so far rebuffed the idea of legal action, preferring instead to pursue the route of offering the UK gems that have never before left Greece in return for the sculptures. Officials cite another pro-Tory paper as evidence that the charm offensive appears to be working. In recent months, the Daily Telegraph has also softened its stance amid reports of disquiet over the discovery that Johnson, a former columnist, had misled the paper by insisting he had never championed the marbles’ return to Athens when in truth he had done just that.

Athens’ centre-right administration has stated repeatedly that restitution of the pieces would be a magnanimous gesture post-Brexit.

“We are ready to offer the UK rotating exhibitions of antiquities that have never before been seen abroad,” said Chatzivasileiou. “We have told them ‘your rooms in the British Museum will never be empty of Greek treasures’. We want to solve this issue once and for all.”

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