Elgin Marbles caught in ‘stalemate’ without UK law change, Greece fears

·5 min read
Elgin Marbles, British Museum - Matthew Fearn/PA
Elgin Marbles, British Museum - Matthew Fearn/PA

The future of the Elgin Marbles is set in stone, unless democracy can undo the legacy of the Empire.

This is the view of Greek officials seeking to prize the sculptures from the British Museum's collection and return them to Athens, reversing what they consider their imperialist acquisition by Britain in the 19th century.

The cause of repatriation has so far resulted in stalemate between Greece and the UK. It is set to continue even after conciliatory hints from George Osborne, the British Museum chairman, that there was a “deal to be done” over their return. How is the stalemate to be ended?

Despite recent talk of “deals” and “dialogue” from the British side, the Telegraph understands that pragmatists in Athens see the best and only hope for repatriation not in loans and cultural exchanges, but in democracy: in the UK Parliament voting through new legislation.

“There needs to be a legislative change,” one senior Greek official said. “One that will allow the museum to dispose of objects in its collection. That would be a key positive step. That is really the way forward, that is what we are waiting for.”

Prevents disposing of objects

The crux of the issue, as high-level figures in Athens see it, is the British Museum Act 1963. The Greek side is holding out for British politicians to alter this obscure law, and pave the way for repatriation.

The 1963 Act – originally intended to stop cultural treasures being sold off – prevents British Museum trustees from disposing of objects in its collection except in very limited circumstances, meaning it is not within the gift of trustees to hand back the Elgin Marbles.

When faced with demands to return the 2,500-year-old artworks, the museum consistently states it cannot as the Government would need to bring a new Act or Parliament to allow repatriation. When the Government faces demands for repatriation, such as those restated by Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Greek prime minister, in 2021, it claims it is a matter for the British Museum’s trustees.

This circular passing of responsibility masks a stalemate, according to Greek figures frustrated by the situation, who have been wary of recent suggestions that the deadlock can be broken without action from the UK Government.

Unesco-mediated talks between the UK and Greek ministers were mooted in the spring of 2022, but the the Department for Digital Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) soon played down these discussions.

In June, Mr Osborne proposed a way out of the stalemate with a deal which would allow the Marbles to be loaned to Athens, probably the Acropolis Museum. In July there was vague talk of a “Parthenon partnership” to ease relations between the disputing parties.

However, Greece has always maintained the Marbles were stolen from the Acropolis by Lord Elgin in the early 19th century in an example of British imperialist plundering. In order to secure their loan, Greek politicians would have to accept that Britain legally acquired and owns the collection of sculptures and friezes.

The British Museum claims Lord Elgin legitimately obtained the Marbles from the Ottoman authorities governing Athens in the early 1800s.

British ownership 'cannot be accepted'

A senior Greek source has said accepting British ownership “cannot be accepted”, and so the Marbles – unable to be loaned or given away – will remain fixed in Room 18 of the British Museum unless there is a change in the law.

Andrew Dismore, the former Labour MP who brought a Private Members’ Bill in 2009 attempting to achieve exactly this, has said he agrees with the Greek position that legislative change is the only hope for those who want to see the Marbles permanently returned to Athens.

He told the Telegraph: “A legal battle would not work. Greece did not exist as a nation when the Marbles were taken, and Greece was not a nation when the Marbles were made. So ownership is tricky. They need a solution which sidesteps the legal issue and the question of ownership.

“The 1963 Act is the main stumbling block, and the way to change that is through Parliament. It could be through a Private Members' Bill but, realistically, it would need government backing to get through. In some ways we’re in the same position as 2009. The same position we’ve always been in.”

However, it has been suggested by supporters of repatriation that increased public support for the Greek cause could improve the chances of a Private Members' Bill in Parliament, which would conventionally be open to a free vote.

Exclusive YouGov polling, commissioned by the recently launched campaign group the Parthenon Project, has found that 54 per cent of UK adults would support full reparation of the Elgin Marbles compared with just 23 per cent who disagreed. A further 23per cent “don’t know”.

While there may be some support for the Greek cause, the DCMS have made clear that the Government has no plans to change museum legislation any time soon. The British Museum has consistently said that all objects in its collection are up for discussion, but only regards to a loan deal.

Campaigners for repatriation have indicated that they will continue to play a long game and wait for public opinion to tip further in their favour, in the hope that this could facilitate a democratic vote to decide the future of the Marbles.

Marble artworks were created by the sculptor Phidias in the 5th century BC to decorate Athens’ Parthenon, its key temple and imperial treasury. During the height of Britain's own empire, Lord Elgin acquired a selection of these ancient artworks over several years from 1801, and sold them to the Government in 1816 for £35,000.

The Marbles comprise 17 statues of Greek gods, 15 “metopes” showing mythical battles between the civilised and barbarous, and a 246ft frieze showing an Athenian procession. They form part of an overall set of Parthenon sculptures, the rest of which are held in Athens.