Inside the secret meetings that could seal the fate of the Parthenon Marbles

In a Knightsbridge hotel suite furnished with an Italian marble bathroom, individually selected artworks and “touch me fabrics”, two fiftysomething men who agreed to meet on the condition of total secrecy were wondering: “Can we make history?”

Greece’s prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis had invited George Osborne, former Conservative politician and current chair of the British Museum, to explore a deal to end one of the world’s bitterest political and cultural disputes: the row over the fate of the 2,500-year-old Parthenon Sculptures.

Two centuries after they were hauled from the ruins of the Parthenon temple in Athens by a British nobleman, the treasures, also known as the Elgin Marbles, are among the greatest in the British Museum. Housed in a dedicated room, the sculptures of Olympian gods and goddesses, centaurs and warriors, are unmatched examples of the artistry and ambition of fifth century BCE Athens.

The showstopper is the Frieze, the marble relief decorated with men and women in a stately procession, which ran round the 160m-long inner colonnade of the Parthenon. Lord Elgin brought 75m of it to London, the largest surviving portion. Greece wants it back. “It’s my passion,” Mitsotakis told the Financial Times, as he reflected on that first meeting with Osborne at the Berkeley Hotel in November 2021. “I wanted it very much from the first time I saw the Frieze when I was about 18 years old and visited the British Museum. What shocked and infuriated me was that the monument was broken. It’s like you’ve taken the Mona Lisa and cut it in half.”

Osborne listened intently as Mitsotakis set out his case. He had barely given any thought to the Parthenon Sculptures during his career in British politics. He’s best known for his role as the country’s “austerity chancellor” after the global financial crash. But recently installed as chair of the world’s oldest public museum, Osborne saw a chance to show he is running an enlightened institution ready to engage in the debate about the repatriation of artefacts. He also saw a man across the table with whom he could do business. “Nobody has tried, well, ­forever,” Osborne has told colleagues.

A side view of a marble torso, believed to the Greek god of speed Hermes, displayed on a plinth in the British Museum
A statue from the west pediment of the Parthenon © Michael Collins

A front view of the same torso
The much-battered torso probably represents Hermes © Michael Collins

Lord Ed Vaizey, a Tory peer and former UK culture secretary who is heading a campaign to return the Parthenon Sculptures to the Acropolis, says of Osborne’s plan: “I think the climate is better than it has been for 200 years to resolve this.” At a time western countries are grappling with their colonial pasts, negotiations that stemmed from that first meeting are guaranteed to attract attention. “The Greek PM turns up in his motorcade and it’s all too exciting — George is back on the stage,” said one senior figure in the British arts, when asked why they thought Osborne was doing it.

It’s also, the person adds, a major strategic ­challenge for the British Museum. The world will be watching.

There are few things that Kyriakos Mitsotakis speaks about with visible passion. After three and a half years at the helm of his country, he is known for his efficiency, organisational skills and pro-business reforms. The Harvard-educated, former McKinsey consultant is the scion of a political family. His father Konstantinos served as Greece’s prime minister in the early 1990s.

Despite spending a lot of time with Greek politicians during the decade when Europe anxiously contemplated economic crises in Athens, Osborne hardly knew Mitsotakis before their meeting. But the two hit it off. Mitsotakis told colleagues afterwards that there was “trust and respect”, while Osborne saw the Greek premier as an effective technocrat, joking to colleagues that Mitsotakis, an Anglophile, was “Greece’s Rishi Sunak”.

Osborne has declined to speak publicly about his talks with Mitsotakis, fearing that anything he says could be used against the prime minister, who is facing an election in the coming months. But colleagues said he immediately believed a deal could be struck. “Essentially, you had two rational people in a room without any of the baggage or history,” said one British Museum insider. “You should be able to come up with an arrangement where some of the marbles at any one time are in London and some of them are in Athens.”

Rational it may be, but Greece believes the marbles were stolen by Elgin, belong to the Greek people and should be returned immediately to the magnificent new Acropolis Museum in Athens. Osborne, meanwhile, is constrained by a 1963 Act of Parliament, which stops the British Museum permanently handing back the Parthenon Sculptures. The UK government is not about to change the law, despite calls to do so by a Unesco committee in 2021. Failure to find a deal is a very real possibility.

Osborne’s proposal employs a number of strategies to bridge the gap between the sides, including the cultural version of a hostage swap. According to people briefed on the plan, it would see a series of loan deals involving the marbles, which would gradually build up trust. Greece would not renounce its claim — it would be a big problem for Mitsotakis to accept a “loan” of what he regards as Greek property — but the British Museum would agree to ship to Athens potentially one-third or more of the marbles for a set time period, such as 10 years. There is a precedent. One of the marbles — the river god Ilissos — was loaned out before, to Vladimir Putin, for display at St Petersburg’s Hermitage museum in 2014.

One obvious problem is whether the Greeks would return them at the end of the loan period. Richard Lambert, Osborne’s predecessor as British Museum chair and a former editor of the FT, says: “My assumption was that once loaned, they would not come back.” A British Museum insider admits: “Possession is nine-tenths of the law in terms of fairly large marble sculptures.”

Part of Osborne’s answer is that in exchange for some of the Parthenon Sculptures, Athens would loan Greek treasures to London as “collateral”. The spectacular frescoes of Santorini, dating back to 1700 BCE, have been mentioned in Athens as among potential candidates for such a swap.

The second element of the Osborne plan would be that, when the loan expired, the marbles would be returned to London, but a bigger portion would be simultaneously sent to Athens as an incentive, making Greece a permanent home for the sculptures at any given time.

As confidence in the deal increased over time, a “ratchet” would be introduced so that more would be sent gradually. Some trustees at the British Museum envisage a situation where half the Parthenon Sculptures could be in London and the other half in Athens at any one time. Talks are also under way on a legal agreement whereby Greece entering into a contract with the British Museum would not force Athens to accept the museum’s ownership of the marbles on principle.

A front view of a headless, armless marble statue, believed to be the winged Greek goddess messenger Iris, on display at the British Museum
A statue depicting the winged goddess Iris from the west pediment of the Parthenon © Michael Collins

A side view of the same statue of Iris
The west pediment showed the contest between Athena and Poseidon over Attica © Michael Collins

In a statement, the British Museum echoed recent public comments made by Osborne, insisting it operates within the law and would not be dismantling its collection. “We are, however, looking at long-term partnerships, which would enable some of our greatest objects to be shared with audiences around the world,” it added. “Discussions with Greece about a Parthenon Partnership are ongoing and constructive.”

For now it is a firm “no deal” from Mitsotakis. In a second meeting at the hotel in late 2022, he told Osborne that he wants the Frieze back permanently, not on loan and not handed over in portions. But both still believe a deal is possible. Mitsotakis said in January he hoped to repatriate the marbles soon: “If the Greek people trust us again, I believe we could achieve this target after the elections.”

The flurry of cultural diplomacy has refocused attention on the highly charged arguments surrounding the Parthenon Sculptures, how they came to Britain and what case there is for keeping them in London. But at the British Museum there is little evidence of the decades-old call for the works to be sent back. A museum assistant said pamphlets dealing with the dispute were usually put out in the main viewing hall, but when the FT visited in late January none were available. Following inquiries at an information desk in the Central Court, some were found stored in a cupboard.

The call for repatriation and the dispute of legal title is mentioned, as well as the construction of the Acropolis Museum, but the remainder of the text offers a full-throated defence of the British Museum’s policy, including the disputed claim that Elgin, who was Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, removed statues from the ground and the building “acting with the full knowledge and permission” of local authorities.

The subject is similarly glossed over at the Acropolis Museum, which opened in 2009. There, two kinds of sculptures are displayed on the third floor overlooking the Parthenon: originals and plaster copies of those that are missing. Placed next to each other, they create a stark contrast. Other than a discreet mark indicating that the original piece is in London there are no further explanatory signs, besides a video for visitors depicting their loss.

Elsewhere, curators display the marble chunks sawn off and discarded by Lord Elgin’s team as they looked to save weight for the journey to England. Nikos Stambolidis, director-general of the Acropolis Museum and a professor of archaeology, argues no museum outside Athens could provide visitors with the experience of seeing the sculptures in the place in which they were created. “You won’t be able to feel them under the Athenian light or see how the changing seasons affect them,” he said.

“The key person in the removal of the Parthenon Sculptures is the Italian painter Giovanni Battista Lusieri,” according to Tatiana Poulou, an archaeologist based in Athens. Elgin hired Lusieri as his chief artist with the idea that he would make Greek architecture known widely not only through drawings but by creating mouldings and exact models that could be brought back to Britain.

Poulou has read Elgin’s archives in his Broomhall House near Edinburgh, poring over more than 500 letters he exchanged during his time as ambassador. She says she often had goosebumps as she read them. In one dated September 1801, she says, “Lusieri asked for 12 saws from Lord Elgin to cut the sculptures from the temple and reduce their weight.” In January 1802 he wrote to Elgin again. “My Lord, I’m pleased to announce that I’m in possession of the eight metopes, the one where the centaurs carry a woman. The piece has caused much trouble in many ways, and I was forced to be a little barbaric.”

Another marble torso of Hermes, showing just the chest, shoulders and the top of one arm
Another battered torso depicting Hermes, the Greek god of speed © Michael Collins

The same marble torso from the side
Michael Collins made these images in 2015 while artist in residence at the British Musuem © Michael Collins

The first boat Lusieri chartered left Athens that year filled with 16 boxes of antiquities, but it sank off the island of Kythira. At lavish expense, Elgin hired the best divers available — fishermen from the island of Kalymnos — who worked for three years to recover the stones. Though the treasures made it to Britain, he ended up ruined financially. The whole undertaking cost him £74,000, about £5.5mn today. In 1816, the British Museum bought them from him for less than half that.

Elgin became a hate figure for some in Britain, notably the great Romantic poet Lord Byron, who eventually died in the cause of Greek freedom. “Dull is the eye that will not weep to see/Thy walls defac’d, thy mouldering shrines removed/By British hands,” he wrote in “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”. “Greece has had the better spin-doctors ever since,” says Richard Lambert.

Today, the person providing PR advice for the Greek prime minister is Ed Williams, boss of Edelman in Europe. After his election in the summer of 2019, Mitsotakis decided to look again at the marbles question, which had been frozen for years. Realising that there was no obvious legal route to regaining them, he started working to influence British public opinion, making the Greek case in the UK media. The wind seems to be in his favour: a YouGov poll from 2021 showed 59 per cent of ­Britons believe the marbles belong in Greece, against 18 per cent for the UK.

Raging since the 1800s, the debate now finds itself front and centre in 21st-century questions about whether western museums — including giants like the British Museum and the Louvre — should be returning artefacts to their country of origin. In the most recent reversal of longstanding policies on restitution, museums around the world have begun returning the celebrated Benin Bronzes, looted by British troops in the 19th century, to Nigeria. The British Museum, which holds more than 900 of these artefacts, has yet to announce returns but said it “actively engages” with Nigerian institutions as one of several museums in the so-called Benin Dialogue Group. These are helping to establish new museums in Benin City, in which objects from their collections would eventually go on permanent display.

Those who question the movement to return objects say there is a need for institutions where the sweep of cultural history can be viewed and experienced in one place. “The argument for keeping the sculptures here is that you can see them in the context of the whole of humanity,” says the former British Museum chair Lambert.

The problem, says Mary Beard, a classical historian and British Museum trustee, is that the marbles fulfil two roles which are in conflict. Not only are they a very powerful symbol of the Greek nation, she says, “They’re also active symbols and representatives of the idea of Hellenic and Greek and classical culture the world over . . . They have a national and an international role.”

With eight million objects in its storehouses, could the British Museum find other ways of telling this story? Vaizey thinks so, dismissing as “bollocks” the claim that the marbles had to stay in London as part of a holistic global culture experience. “The British Museum is full of Greek artefacts which could perfectly well act as substitutes for ­Hellenic sculpture to the Parthenon Sculptures.”

The argument that a resolution of the Parthenon dispute would put the British Museum on a “slippery slope” to wholesale returns also gets short shrift from many museum experts. Alexander Herman, director of the Institute of Art & Law, says the marbles are “close to unique” in terms of the interest the dispute has generated and the intensity of feeling on the claimant’s side.

Beard says the view of the museum’s trustees as “crusty old bastards” trying to stop the marbles returning to Greece, could not be further from the truth. Trustees have, she says, “obligations to the future of the museum and one of the aspects . . . that will make the museum thrive is if we could get some sort of beginning of a resolution of this.”

Her view is that the British Museum should be seen as a kind of “lending library”. She would love millions of people to see the marbles not just in London and Athens but in cities like Mumbai. She adds: “We have a universal world city in London. It needs a global museum.” The question is what an 18th-century museum should look like today.

Osborne’s answer to this broader question is the £1bn Rosetta Project, the biggest museum redevelopment ever seen in Britain. Its aim is to overhaul an ageing building and reinvent the museum, making it less “Mediterranean-centric” and showcasing more art from Asia, Africa and the Americas. Details will be announced in the spring.

He has spoken to colleagues about how this new-look museum would address the old question of the Parthenon Sculptures, saying that it should embrace the issue and use it to explain how they were now part of a “great agreement with Athens.”

If the British Museum’s trustees were seeking cover for a policy of inertia, the political environment in the UK could scarcely be more favourable, given the Tory government’s disdain for “woke culture”. Its reaction to protests over contested public sculptures, for instance, was to change the law in 2021 to require planning permission for their removal.

Greek politicians believe, however, it will be harder to raise the £1bn for Osborne’s museum refit in the current climate unless he resolves the marbles dispute. “For donors, especially in the US, they will be happy to see this,” says one. Osborne insists to colleagues that his proposals for loaning the marbles to Athens are not about money or wooing billionaires, but clearly it might help.

If there is to be a deal on the marbles, it is not expected until after Greek elections, which Mitsotakis is favourite to win. He is not about to embrace anything which effectively sees the British Museum loaning “stolen” goods back to the country from which they were supposedly looted. But both sides expect talks to resume and believe there has never been a better chance of a deal, despite the political rhetoric around the dispute.

Osborne does not need British political support to loan the marbles to Greece — they belong to the museum — but believes privately that Sunak’s government will support the idea anyway. Vaizey agrees: “I don’t think George would do a loan without the British government being squared beforehand. There would be a clamour for the government to intervene, but I don’t think they would.”

“There’s a high chance this doesn’t work,” Osborne has told friends. “But there’s also a high chance that it does. There’s a reason why this hasn’t been solved — it’s not easy.” Beard is hopeful. “I think the politics has changed,” she says. “Do I think that in 50 or perhaps 20 years all the marbles are going to be in the same place? No.” 

George Parker is the FT’s political editor. Eleni Varvitsioti is Greece and Cyprus correspondent. James Pickford is art news correspondent

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Adam Bradshaw

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