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

13 October 2022, 13:05 | Updated: 13 October 2022, 14:28

The Elgin Marbles could be returned to Greece
The Elgin Marbles could be returned to Greece. Picture: Alamy

By Kit Heren

The Elgin Marbles could be sent back to Greece, with a former government culture minister to chair a new body exploring how to return the world-famous sculptures.

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The Elgin Marbles, named after the British lord who removed them from the Parthenon temple in Athens in the 19th century, have been the subject of controversy ever since they were taken.

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

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.

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.

Now Lord Vaizey, the former MP for Wantage and Didcot will bring a motion before the House of Lords to debate "contested heritage".

The Elgin Marbles in the British Museum
The Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. Picture: Getty
Visitors In The Parthenon Marbles Room In The British Museum
Visitors In The Parthenon Marbles Room In The British Museum. Picture: Getty
Visitors In The Parthenon Marbles Room In The British Museum
Visitors In The Parthenon Marbles Room In The British Museum. Picture: Getty

Speaking to the BBC ahead of Thursday's debate, Lord Vaizey said he was confident that "a deal is within reach".

But Prime Minister Liz Truss said she would not support a deal to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece.

George Osborne, chairman of the British Museum and former Tory chancellor, said earlier this year that there was a "deal to be done" .

He suggested to LBC that the deal could see some of the marbles in Greece for part of the year.

Visitors In Acropolis Of Athens
Visitors In Acropolis Of Athens. Picture: Getty

Speaking to Andrew Marr, he said: "They’re an amazing testament to human civilisation. In the British Museum they tell a story about civilisation compared to all the other civilisations - China, India, other parts of the Mediterranean.

"In Greece they tell the story just of Greek civilisation.

"I think there’s a deal to be done. I think there’s a deal where we can tell both stories in Athens and in London, if we both approach this without a load of pre-conditions, without a load of red lines, and we sit down as sensible people."

George Osborne
George Osborne. Picture: Getty

But Ms Truss told GB News at the Conservative Party conference: "I don't support that."

The Elgin Marbles - also known as the Parthenon Marbles - are 17 sculptures that were taken from the frieze of the Parthenon, a 2,500-year-old temple.

Lord Elgin took about half of them from Athens when he was a British ambassador, starting in 1801. The marbles had been damaged hundreds of years earlier in a war between the Ottoman Empire, which held Athens, and Venice.

He sold the sculptures to the British government - amid criticism by some in the country, including Lord Byron - and they were placed in the British Museum.

Lord Byron was a critic of the statues' removal from Athens
Lord Byron was a critic of the statues' removal from Athens. Picture: Getty

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has called for the marbles to be returned to Greece, and has offered to loan some of his country's other treasures to the British Museum in exchange.

In a recent interview with the Sunday Times, he said he will raise the subject with Ms Truss on a visit to London this year.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Picture: Getty

Mr Mitsotakis said: "At a time when Truss will be looking to build her credibility and when the UK is sort of cornered in terms of its overall image after the (Queen's) funeral, it will be a fantastic gesture and that's what I'll tell her."

In 2021, then-prime minister Boris Johnson told the Greek premier during talks at Downing Street that the issue was "one for the trustees of the British Museum".

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