Boris Johnson denounced Government for not returning Elgin Marbles, 1986 letters reveal

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The Greek minister for culture, Melina Mercouri, speaking with President of the Oxford Union society Boris Johnson before she made a speech about the Elgin Marbles - Reuters
The Greek minister for culture, Melina Mercouri, speaking with President of the Oxford Union society Boris Johnson before she made a speech about the Elgin Marbles - Reuters

Boris Johnson argued for the restitution of the Elgin Marbles in a letter to a senior Greek government minister while studying at Oxford, it has emerged.

The Prime Minister only last year issued a point-blank rejection of any attempt to return the ancient marbles to Greece, insisting they would remain in Britain because they had been legally acquired.

But two letters written by a young Mr Johnson have now emerged in which he argued passionately for the return of what are known in Greece as the Parthenon Marbles, accusing Lord Elgin of “wholesale pillage” in removing them to Britain.

In the previously unpublished letters, written in 1986 when Mr Johnson was an undergraduate at Oxford University and Oxford Union president, he argues for the ancient sculptures’ “immediate” repatriation, accusing the British government of “sophistry and intransigence”.

Mr Johnson, then 21, went as far as claiming that the British government’s policy on the Parthenon Marbles was “unacceptable to cultured people,” and lamented the “scandalous” way it was handling the issue.

Part of the Elgin Marbles collection at the British Museum in London - Graham Barclay/Bloomberg
Part of the Elgin Marbles collection at the British Museum in London - Graham Barclay/Bloomberg

The letters, revealed by the Greek newspaper Ta Nea, were written to the then Greek minister for culture, the late actor Melina Mercouri, in which he sided unreservedly with the Greek government’s campaign for the relics to be reunited.

He also cited a letter that he claimed proved that Lord Elgin removed the sculptures from the Parthenon in the early 19th century without securing legal permission to do so, arguing that its revelation had made the British government’s position “even shakier.”

In November, Mr Johnson rebuffed a direct request by Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis for the Marbles to be repatriated.

His refusal came after he publicly declared that the Marbles were rightfully held by the British Museum.

In the interview in Ta Nea in March 2021, he stated: “I understand the strong feelings of the Greek people – and indeed prime minister [Kyriakos] Mitsotakis – on the issue.

“But 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.”

The Parthenon Temple at the Acropolis in Athens - Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP
The Parthenon Temple at the Acropolis in Athens - Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP

In 1986, however, Mr Johnson wrote to Mercouri that “the Turkish authorities denied ‘that the persons who had sold those marbles to [Elgin] had any right to dispose of them’.”

Mr Johnson accused Lord Elgin of exploiting the “near anarchy” of the Ottoman Empire to remove the carvings.

The letters were discovered in an Oxford library and their authenticity has been confirmed by an Oxford source and someone who served as a Greek state official at the time, the paper reported.

Their discovery comes six months after Ta Nea republished an article written by Mr Johnson in April 1986, in which he urged the British government to return the artefacts to Greece, arguing that they had been unlawfully removed from the ancient temple in Athens.

Outburst of youthful enthusiasm

Whitehall sources said at the time that Johnson had written the article in a momentary outburst of youthful enthusiasm, but later changed his mind.

However, the discovery of the two letters suggest that the future Prime Minister was consistent in his belief that the Marbles should be returned by the British Museum.

In his first letter, dated March 10, 1986, the future Prime Minister and Conservative leader told Mercouri: “I think the majority of students agree with me when I say that there is absolutely no reason why the Elgin Marbles, superlatively the most important and beautiful treasures left to us by the ancient world, should not be returned immediately from the British Museum to their rightful home in Athens”.

On April 16, 1986, Johnson sent a second letter to the Greek culture minister, insisting that “the issue of the Elgin Marbles (…) has been handled with sophistry and intransigence by the British government”.

He added: “Since the discovery of Elgin’s letter of 1811, the Government’s position has grown even shakier.”

Supporters of the restitution of the marbles said the emergence of the letters will put pressure on the British government to strike a deal with Athens and that Mr Johnson’s current refusal to do so smacked of “hypocrisy”.

Baroness Chakrabarti, a Labour Peer and former Shadow Attorney General for England and Wales, told The Telegraph: “A young ambitious student politician advanced his career through the cause of restitution of the Parthenon Marbles, just like the man who wanted to be Mayor of London spoke up for human rights.

“Now he wants to run his back on both those promises and that should not be allowed to stand.”

A Government spokesperson said: “The UK has a longstanding position on this issue that has not changed - the Parthenon Sculptures were acquired legally in accordance with the law at the time. The British Museum operates independently of the government and free from political interference. All decisions relating to collections are taken by the Museum's trustees.”

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