Elgin Marbles could soon be returned to Greece under ‘long-term loan’ deal negotiated by British Museum chairman George Osborne

  • Prized sculptures were removed from Athens in the 1800s and taken to Britain
  • Ex-chancellor George Osborne in talks with Greek PM to loan the artefacts back
  • Culture Secretary warned returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece is a ‘slippy road’ 

The Elgin Marbles may soon return to Greece under a ‘cultural exchange’ deal drawn up by the chairman of the British Museum, ex-Chancellor George Osborne. 

The prized artefacts, also known as the Parthenon sculptures, were made between 447BC and 432BC and decorated the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens.

British diplomat Lord Elgin removed about half of the remaining sculptures from the ruins of the Parthenon between 1801 and 1805 when Greece was under Ottoman Turkish occupation and brought them to England.

The sculptures have since been the subject of a 200-year-old dispute over ownership between Athens and London – Greece argues the sculptures were taken illegally and should be returned for permanent display.

Current laws prevent the removal of historical artefacts from the British Museum, but Osborne is said to have negotiated a long-term loan deal which would see some of the Marbles returned to Athens in return for other ‘cultural artefacts’.

The Elgin Marbles, also known as the Parthenon sculptures, were made between 447BC and 432BC and decorated the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens. But some of them were removed and taken to England by British Diplomat Lord Elgin in the early 1800s

Lord Elgin removed about half of the remaining sculptures from the ruins of the Parthenon between 1801 and 1805, before they entered the British Museum

Sources told the Daily Telegraph that the loan agreement could be solidified ‘sooner rather than later’, but the prized sculptures would still ultimately remain under the ownership of the British museum – something which Greece’s government is likely to fight tooth and nail to change. 

According to Greek daily newspaper Ta Nea, Mr Osborne and Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis met at a five-star hotel in Knightsbridge, west London, in early December to discuss the sculptures.

They are also said to have first held ‘exploratory talks’ in November last year at the Greek ambassador’s Mayfair residence.

The British Museum has not denied Mr Osborne had held talks with the Greek premier.

A spokesperson said: ‘The British Museum has publicly called for a new Parthenon partnership with Greece and we’ll talk to anyone, including the Greek government, about how to take that forward.

‘As the chair of trustees said last month, we operate within the law and we’re not going to dismantle our great collection as it tells a unique story of our common humanity.

‘But we are seeking new positive, long-term partnerships with countries and communities around the world, and that of course includes Greece.’ 

George Osborne, the ex-chancellor who is now chairman of the British Museum, has been holding talks with Greece’s PM over the possible return of the sculptures 

The Parthenon Marbles, also known as the Elgin Marbles, are displayed at the British Museum in London October 16, 2014

Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan in December said returning the Elgin Marbles to Athens would be a ‘very dangerous and slippy road’ as it could spark a wave of demands from various countries for the return of other artefacts held in Britain.

Downing Street also ruled out changing legislation that prevents the British Museum from handing the sculptures back to Greece.

‘I think George Osborne’s position is a little bit different to has been portrayed,’ Ms Donelan told MPs last month before the House of Commons’ Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee.

‘But there are some people that are strongly advocating to return some of these items permanently. The current law does not allow that, it should be acknowledged.

‘I can completely understand the position that they are taking and I can sympathise with some of the argument. But I do think that is a very dangerous and slippy road to embark down.’

The Culture Secretary added that Britain had ‘taken great care’ over artefacts held in the country’s museums ‘for decades’ and had conducted ‘considerable’ research into historical items.

Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan suggested handing back the ‘Elgin Marbles’ would spark a wave of demands for the return of other artefacts held in Britain

She told the committee: ‘Once you start giving one back, where does that end?

‘It’s also very difficult to know who to give these things back to. We’re talking about very ancient items in many respects.

‘There are certain examples where it is not clear over exactly who the owners are. And others where I would argue it is more clear that we have a direct link to ownership.

‘But, certainly, I think the current status quo is working and we should protect it.’ 

Donelan’s comments were made after the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: ‘We have no plans to change the law, which prevents removing objects from the British Museum’s collection, apart from in certain circumstances.

‘Our position on this hasn’t changed. Decisions relating to the care and management of the collections are a matter for the Museum and its trustees.

‘The Parthenon Sculptures are legally owned by the trustees and operationally independent of the Government.’

No. 10 also claimed the public would ‘vote with their feet’ if they dislike museums removing controversial objects from their collections.

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