Return of ‘Elgin Marbles’ will strengthen UK’s global role, says Greek PM

The Greek prime minister has urged Boris Johnson to return priceless ancient sculptures to Greece during his official visit to the UK saying the move would strengthen Britain’s global standing post-Brexit.

“It’s a topic I really care about and not just a footnote in my visit to the UK,” said Kyriakos Mitsotakis during an interview with the Financial Times on Tuesday, referring to the “Elgin Marbles” taken from the Parthenon in Athens in the early 19th century. “There is a very strong reunification argument which I consider particularly important.”

“If I were in the PM’s shoes and I were thinking out of the box in terms of global Britannia, and the idea of Britain really playing a role in the post-Brexit world, [it] would be a fantastic coup for public diplomacy if they were to look at this from a different perspective,” he said.

The return of the Elgin Marbles has been a subject of contentious debate for more than 200 years during which time Greece has repeatedly called for their repatriation.

Seventeen figures and almost half of the frieze that adorned the fifth century BC Parthenon were removed by Lord Thomas Elgin, a British diplomat and art collector, when Greece was under Ottoman rule, who then sold them to the British Museum.

Greece’s leader on Tuesday met with Johnson to discuss a number of foreign policy issues including the repatriation of the historical objects.

Johnson has previously rejected calls to return the marbles to Greece, insisting they were “legally acquired”. Speaking to the Greek daily Ta Nea earlier this year, he said: “The UK government has a firm, longstanding position on the sculptures, which is that they were legally acquired by Lord Elgin under the appropriate laws of the time and have been legally owned by the British Museum’s trustees since their acquisition.”

According to Mitsotakis, in 1986 Melina Mercouri, the Greek culture minister and fervent campaigner for the return of the marbles, was invited by Johnson to the Oxford Union to talk on the issue and at the time he was a passionate supporter of returning the marbles.

Melina Mercouri speaks with Boris Johnson in 1986 © Brian Smith/Reuters

For years the main argument against the return of the sculptures was Greece’s lack of a suitable location for their display but in 2009 Greece inaugurated a state of the art museum at the foot of the Acropolis.

“If you go to visit the new Acropolis museum you will understand what I mean. That’s where you need to see the sculptures,” said Mitsotakis, referring to the plaster casts of the sculptures housed in London next to original pieces Elgin left behind. He stressed that the Elgin Marbles are a significant monument and not just any artefact.

The Greek PM said he understood the position of the British Museum that a possible return of the statue could lead to “everyone asking for everything there is in the museum” but insisted that the Elgin Marbles were a “special case”.

In exchange for the return, Mitsotakis said he was very open to offering the British Museum access to antiquities and treasures that have never before left Greece as part of a rotating exhibition in the future.

Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum
The Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum © Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Athens’ Acropolis Museum
Athens’ Acropolis Museum © Milos Bicanski/Getty Images

Johnson on Tuesday said the possession of the marbles was a matter for the museum and not the UK government.

“Any decisions relating to the collections are taken by the museum’s trustees and any question about the location for the Parthenon sculptures is a matter for them,” Downing Street said.

But Mitsotakis insisted he would continue to engage both the government and the museum on the issue.

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