The Greek government has launched a new bid to engage Britain in talks over the return to Athens of ancient sculptures originally ornamenting the Parthenon Temple on the Acropolis, scultpures that are formally known as Parthenon Marbles and Sculptures or Elgin Marbles.
Greece’s culture minister has written her British counterpart to formally propose negotiations on the future of the works — variously known as the Parthenon Sculptures, or Elgin Marbles.
A ministry statement said Monday Lydia Koniordou invited British officials to Greece to discuss the matter.
Koniordou has formally requested the resumption of talks for the return of the Parthenon Marbles by the British Museum.
The Greek Minister made the request through a letter to her British counterpart, with whom she had met in London earlier.
“The resolution of this long-term issue is the Ministry of Culture’s and the government’s main priority,” the statement said. In her letter, the minister said it was important to accelerate talks and place an emphasis on the cultural and ethical aspects of the issue.
The case of the 5th century B.C. works in London’s British Museum is one of the longest-running cultural heritage disputes in the world.
The Parthenon Marbles are a collection of Classical Greek marble sculptures made under the supervision of the architect and sculptor Phidias and his assistants.
The works were removed by a Scottish nobleman in the early 19th century when Athens was under Turkish rule. Greece wants them back, which Britain has resolutely refused to do.
From 1801 to 1812, agents of Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin removed about half of the surviving sculptures of the Parthenon, as well as sculptures from the Propylaea and Erechtheum. The Marbles were transported by sea to Britain.
Elgin later claimed to have obtained in 1801 an official decree (a firman) from the Sublime Porte, the central government of the Ottoman Empire which were then the rulers of Greece.
This firman has not been found in the Ottoman archives and its veracity is disputed.
The half not removed by Elgin is now displayed in the Acropolis Museum, aligned in orientation and within sight of the Parthenon, with the position of the missing elements clearly marked and space left for their eventual return to Athens.
In Britain, the acquisition of the collection was supported by some, while some others, such as Lord Byron, likened the Earl’s actions to vandalism or looting.
Following a public debate in Parliament and its subsequent exoneration of Elgin, he sold the Marbles to the British government in 1816. They were then passed to the British Museum where they are now on display.
After gaining its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1832, the newly found Greek state began a series of projects to restore its monuments and retrieve looted art.
International efforts to repatriate the Marbles to Greece were intensified in the 1980s by then Greek Minister of Culture Melina Mercouri, and there are now many organisations actively campaigning for the Marbles’ return, several united as part of the International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures.
The Greek government itself continues to urge the return of the marbles to Athens so as to be unified with the remaining marbles and for the complete Parthenon frieze sequence to be restored, through diplomatic, political and legal means.
The return of the Parthenon Marbles through legal means seems a lost case.
In 2014, UNESCO offered to mediate between Greece and the United Kingdom to resolve the dispute, although this was later turned down by the British Museum on the basis that UNESCO works with government bodies, not trustees of museums.
In 2016, the first-ever legal bid to force the UK to return the Parthenon Marbles to Greece has been thrown out by the European Court of Human Rights.
However, Greece did not give up efforts. During his official visit to London last June, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras set the issue to British counterpart Theresa May.
At the same time, there is talk the Parthenon Marbles could be part of the Brexit deal.