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Secret talks over return of Parthenon Sculptures

Greece is reportedly involved in secret talks with the British Museum about how the Elgin Marbles could be returned in time for the 2004 Olympics.

The Times [1]

August 03, 2003
Museum in secret talks to return Elgin marbles
Jon Ungoed-Thomas

THE British Museum has been holding previously undisclosed talks with the Greek government over a proposal to return the Elgin marbles to Athens for next year’s Olympics.

The museum confirmed last week that it has been talking to the Greeks about lending them the marbles, despite repeatedly saying that they would always remain in Britain.

Work has now started on a £30m Acropolis Museum in Athens, which has been designed specifically to exhibit the marbles.

Under the proposed deal, the exhibition space might formally be designated an annexe of the British Museum. Neil MacGregor, the British Museum director, confirmed for the first time last week that the museum would consider a loan.

The Greeks first requested the return of the marbles in 1983. It believes that its case has been significantly bolstered by the new museum and by international pressure for the return of the marbles coinciding with next year’s Olympics.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) has been seeking to encourage a dialogue between the two countries. Guido Carducci, of Unesco’s division of cultural heritage, said: “The dialogue is focused on whether or not the marbles may be exhibited in Athens, probably through a loan and particularly with a view to the coming 2004 Olympic Games.”

It is understood that one option being considered by the Greek government was proposed by Lord Owen during a visit to Athens last March. He suggested a treaty between the two countries which would allow the marbles to be shared under the watchful eye of the European Union.

The Greeks have already conceded that the Elgin marbles will remain the property of the British Museum. They have also proposed that the Acropolis Museum gallery, where they intend to exhibit the marbles, be designated an outpost of the British Museum.

A statement issued last week said that the museum was against the “permanent removal” of the marbles, but unlike previous statements it did not rule out a loan.

MacGregor has been in regular contact with Professor Dimitrios Pandermalis, president of the organisation for the construction of the Acropolis Museum. Dr Nicholas Papadakis, press attachŽé to the Greek embassy in London, said: “This is the first time there have been protracted talks and we find it very encouraging. I now have no doubt that the marbles will be returned to Athens.”

The 2,300-year-old marble statues and panels were removed from the Parthenon in 1801 by Lord Elgin, who was the British ambassador to Constantinople. The collection was later sold to the British government for £35,000 and placed in the British Museum.

One of the key arguments over the decades used by British Museum officials who were opposed to the marbles being moved had been the lack of a suitable venue for them to be displayed in Athens. The Greek government has now countered that argument with the proposed construction of the museum at the foot of the Acropolis.

The Greeks have offered the British Museum joint curatorship of the marbles. They are also prepared to designate the room displaying the marbles as an annexe of the British Museum.

Owen said last week that the Greeks would need to understand that there would have to be “genuine sharing” for a deal to be agreed. But, he added, “there would need to be a [European Union] treaty between the two culture ministers”.

MacGregor’s view is that the British Museum is still the best place for the marbles to be exhibited because they can be shown in context with exhibits from other cultures. “The Greek government acknowledges that ownership of the Parthenon sculptures is conceded,” he said. “The question is where they should best be displayed.”

Papadakis said: “It would be a wonderfully symbolic gesture if they were returned in time for the Olympics, and we are encouraged by the amount of public opinion supporting us.”

Kathimerini (English Edition) [2]

Monday August 4, 2003
Deal on the Marbles?
Report claims British Museum considering loan to Athens

Greek and British officials may be near a breakthrough on the touchy issue of the British Museum’s Elgin Collection of sculptures from the Parthenon, according to a report from London yesterday.

The London museum has confirmed that it has surreptitiously entered negotiations with the Greek government on the return of the 5th century BC marble works to Athens in the form of a loan, yesterday’s Sunday Times said. The paper said British Museum director Neil MacGregor has confirmed that the museum would consider a loan.

This would be at odds with the museum’s previous policy, when it was implied that if ever lent to Greece the works might never be sent back to London.

The Greek government has repeatedly appealed for the sculptures, which were removed at the beginning of the 19th century by Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin, to be returned to Athens for the 2004 Olympics. To that purpose, a new museum is to be built under the Acropolis, allowing the Parthenon sculptures to be displayed in a special hall with the ancient temple of Athena visible through glass walls.

But it seems increasingly unlikely that the 94-million-euro structure will be ready on time, as the foundation stone-laying ceremony is already over a year late. Furthermore, the project has run into serious legal difficulties following court action by Athenians concerned that construction work for the new building will destroy antiquities found on the plot, which is beside the Makriyianni metro station.

The Sunday Times said one option being considered by the Greek government involved a treaty between Athens and London that would allow the marbles to be shared under EU supervision.

The Greek press attache in Athens, Nicholas Papadakis, voiced high optimism. “This is the first time that there have been protracted talks and we find it very encouraging,” he told the paper. “I now have no doubt that the marbles will be returned to Athens.”

Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos yesterday issued a statement that did little to clarify the situation, but implied that a deal might be in the offing. “(Our longstanding proposal is) to create a common, joint exhibition of the Parthenon Marbles,” he said. “The Marbles may thus come to Athens for the 2004 Olympic Games… We are prepared to sign all necessary treaties… In any case, both countries are EU members.”

Macedonian Press Agency [3]

Athens, 4 August 2003 (12:20 UTC+2)

The creation of a joint exhibit of the Parthenon Marbles was proposed by the Greek government to the British side, as was made known by Minister of Culture Ev. Venizelos, drawing on a cover story of the “Sunday Times”, according to which the British Museum was negotiating the return of the Marbles, even if just temporarily, in view of the Olympics, despite its categorical, at times, refusal to return them.

“This way the Marbles can be in Athens for the 2004 Olympics with the cooperation of the two museums, the British Museum and the New Acropolis Museum”, pointed out Mr. Venizelos, adding that “the Greek side is prepared to sign all necessary agreements, both between the two museums and between the two countries”.

“Furthermore, both countries are members of the European Union and UNESCO. The response of the British to this Greek proposal would be a cultural and political initiative of global proportions”, stressed the Minister.

According to the “Sunday Times”, the draft of the agreement was proposed by Lord Owen, while the Athens-London contacts on the issue are being encouraged by UNESCO, the cultural branch of the UN.

Sydney Morning Herald [4]

Marbles may be home for Games
By Peter Fray
August 4 2003

London: The British Museum has reportedly been holding talks with the Greek Government about returning the controversial Elgin marbles to Athens in time for next year’s Olympic Games.

The museum is considering a proposal to lend the marbles, once the centrepiece of the Parthenon, to a specially created museum in Athens that might be formally designated British space.

The museum has consistently refused Greek requests for the return of the marbles, which were taken by British diplomat Lord Elgin in 1801.

The Greek Government has recognised the marbles will be retained in British ownership, but is building a £30 million ($74 million) museum to house the priceless 2300-year-old marble panels and statues.

Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper reported that the new museum could be officially recognised as part of the British Museum to allay fears the marbles would be kept by the Greeks once they left Britain.

Britain has come under intense international pressure to return the marbles in time for next August’s Olympics in Athens.

A softening of the museum’s attitude towards the marbles is likely to help Aboriginal activists who are lobbying the British Government to hand back more than 400 Aboriginal bones and other body parts taken from Australia.

The museum says it is legally compelled to keep its collection intact, the same argument it has used to keep the Elgin marbles in British hands.

The museum was unavailable for comment.