January 24, 2004

Athens calls for classical antiquities exchange

Posted at 1:35 pm in Elgin Marbles

The Greek government today made new calls for the Parthenon Marbles to be returned to Athens.

The Times

January 23, 2004
Athens calls for classical antiquities exchange
By Richard Beeston, Diplomatic Editor

THE GREEK Government yesterday made an impassioned appeal for the return of the Elgin Marbles, arguing that a compromise deal in the year of the Athens Olympics could benefit Britain and Greece.

George Papandreou, the Greek Foreign Minister who will lead the ruling Pasok party into general elections in March, proposed that the antiquities remain the property of the British Museum, but on permanent loan at an annex near the Acropolis.

In return Greece would arrange for a permanent exchange of classical antiquities to the British Museum in London.

“We could make this a win-win project for the UK and Greece, for the British Museum and the Acropolis,” said Mr Papandreou, before raising the issue in meetings with Tony Blair and Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary.

“The Olympic Games are coming up this year. We feel it is a good opportunity. We say, why miss it?” he said. “Let us see why we can’t make it something that we can both benefit from.”

He said that detailed talks were expected in the coming weeks between the culture ministers of the two countries to reach a breakthrough before the Games open in August. Mr Straw said that the Government was willing to discuss the matter, but Foreign Office officials said that the final decision lay with the trustees of the British Museum.

The dispute over custody of the Marbles has been dragging on for years and there are no hints of a softening in attitudes at the British Museum, which insists that the Marbles stay in London, where they will be better preserved and appreciated by the public in their current home.

The current Lord Elgin, the direct descendant of the man who brought the sculptures to Britain, argues that the Marbles could be damaged if returned to Greece.

But the public mood may be changing. Last week a lobby group called “Marbles Reunited” was launched in Britain to promote the return of the friezes to Athens nearly two centuries after they were brought to Britain by Lord Elgin, the British Ambassador to Istanbul, who later sold them to the British Museum. The group commissioned an ICM poll which revealed that 73 per cent of people believe the Marbles should be returned to Greece.

Robin Cook, the former Foreign Secretary, revealed that he was always in favour of returning the Elgin Marbles, but had to remain silent while serving in a cabinet opposed to giving them back.

Calling the removal of the Marbles a “dishonourable act of vandalism”, he argued that returning them for the Athens Olympics would boost London’s chances of clinching the Games in 2012.

“The issue is where they should be now,” he told the BBC. “There is really no dispute they belong in Athens.”

Not surprisingly the debate in Britain has been greeted warmly by the Greeks and Mr Papandreou in particular. The veteran Foreign Minister, whose father and grandfather both served as Prime Ministers of Greece, could follow in their footsteps if he wins the March 7 elections.

But the Anglophile graduate from the London School of Economics is running in a tight race against the main opposition New Democracy party. He badly needs a foreign policy coup to impress voters back home.

Last weekend on a campaign trip through Thrace he proposed to reduce Greece’s defence spending if the country’s old rival Turkey was willing to match the cuts. Yesterday his discussions in London were dominated by Cyprus, due to join the EU this year.

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