Elgin Marbles 'close to Greece return' as British Museum's George Osborne draws up landmark deal

4 January 2023, 07:06 | Updated: 28 November 2023, 10:30

The Elgin Marbles could be sent back to Greece soon
The Elgin Marbles could be sent back to Greece soon. Picture: Getty

By Kit Heren

The Elgin Marbles could be handed back to Greece soon, with the British Museum's chairman George Osborne having drawn up an agreement with Athens as part of a "cultural exchange", according to reports.

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The 2,500-year-old Elgin Marbles, taken from the Parthenon by British aristocrat Lord Elgin in the early 19th century, have been controversial ever since.

The Greek government has pushed for the UK to return them from the British Museum, where they have been on display for about 200 years.

But UK law bars institutions like the British Museum from giving away cultural artefacts such as the marbles. Last month the government blocked an attempt at changing the law.

Greece has been campaigning to have the marbles returned for decades
Greece has been campaigning to have the marbles returned for decades. Picture: Getty

But former Tory chancellor and British Museum chief Mr Osborne is now close to a deal with Athens to hand back the marbles as part of a long-term "cultural exchange", which would get around the law, the Telegraph has reported.

An opinion poll this year found that some 40% of British people were in favour of returning the marbles to Greece, while 16% wanted to keep them in the UK.

A Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) spokesperson told the PA news agency: "The Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum are legally owned by the Trustees of the British Museum, which is operationally independent of Government. Decisions relating to the care and management of its collections are a matter for the trustees."

But culture secretary Michelle Donelan said in December that giving back the Elgin Marbles would be the first step on "a dangerous and slippery road".

People admiring the marbles in the British Museum
People admiring the marbles in the British Museum. Picture: Getty

Ms Donelan said that if the marbles were sent back to their country of origin, it could spark a wave of other artefacts held in British institutions being returned.

Last month the British Museum said in a statement it had "publicly called for a new Parthenon Partnership with Greece" and would "talk to anyone, including the Greek government about how to take that forward".

It added: "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 has reportedly drawn up a deal
George Osborne has reportedly drawn up a deal. Picture: Getty

The marbles are part of a broader debate on the future of artefacts taken from other countries during the days of the British Empire, and which are still held in British museums.

Read more: Giving back Elgin Marbles 'would be a slippery and dangerous road' sparking mass exodus of artefacts, says minister

Read more: Elgin Marbles could be sent back to Greece, with ex-culture minister 'confident a deal is within reach'

The Horniman Museum in Forest Hill, south-east London, began the process of giving its collection of Benin Bronzes to the government of Nigeria late last year.

George Osborne doesn't rule out Elgin Marbles will return to Greece

The museum's 72 bronzes were taken by force from Benin City, in what is today Nigeria, in 1897.

The director of the museum, which handed back the bronzes to the Nigerian government in November, said it was "a moral and appropriate" gesture.