“The scent of elections is in the air,” said Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on one of his pre-election tours. One issue where that scent is particularly strong is the longstanding one of the return of the Parthenon marbles stolen by Lord Elgin more than two centuries ago. The premier himself brought it back to the table, meeting in secret over three months with George Osborne, former British finance minister and now director of the British Museum, where the marbles are displayed. These meetings were carried out in violation of the UNESCO decision that the issue of the Parthenon marbles does not concern the museums, but the respective governments. And now Mitsotakis’ initiative has caused tension between UNESCO and Athens, since it was Greece that had asked UNESCO to rule that governments were responsible for the issue in the first place.
It’s easy to see that a negotiation is underway in which archaeology is being shoved aside for electoral propaganda, starting from the fact that the secret talks were attended first by Minister of State at the Office of the Prime Minister Yiorgos Gerapetritis and more recently by Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias, but never by Culture Minister Lina Mendoni. According to Gerapetritis, “dialogue between the Greek government and the British is well underway,” even though Greek archaeologists have not even been informed. Then, the press campaign began with flashy headlines about an alleged “agreement” between Athens and London but with great confusion about its terms. According to Despina Koutsoumba, president of the Association of Archaeologists, there is nothing concrete: “There was some agreement in principle with Boris Johnson, but it went up in smoke with his resignation. All that’s left is the pre-election campaign, in which British newspapers, bankrolled by some London-based Greek shipowners, are also playing a role.”
To make things even more inscrutable, there was Mistotakis’ visit to King Charles III a few weeks ago – a visit decided at the last minute, when the British premier did not want to meet his Greek counterpart. What was discussed between the two is unknown. All we know is that the Greek premier entrusted the British ruler’s private institute with the restoration of the former royal residence in Tatoi, just outside Athens. Is this perhaps part of a deal to get the marbles back? The Mitsotakis family makes no secret of its sympathy for the Glucksburgs, the Danish dynasty that misruled Greece for a century and a half. The Windsors are related to the Glucksburgs. And the last king of Greece, Constantine II, never abandoned his claim to Tatoi, despite the very generous compensation he received. The former royal residence might enter the game in a possible exchange for the marbles.
On Monday, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak ruled out abolishing the law that prohibits the British Museum from estranging any of its artifacts, so it seems that the talks are about an exchange after all, as George Osborne also confirmed. Such an exchange could be temporary, for an exhibition, or permanent. A list is circulating among Greek archaeologists of objects that might be transferred to London, nobody knows for how long: the Hermes of Praxiteles, the Charioteer of Delphi or the Golden Mask of Mycenae. In London, there is also talk of the possibility of opening a branch of the British Museum in Athens to display the Elgin marbles. This would be a compromise solution recalling the biblical King Solomon, but it wouldn’t solve the main problem: putting the Parthenon frieze back together.
Nicolas Zirganos, a journalist specializing in archaeology who recently published a book dealing with the issue, is extremely skeptical about any agreement being reached: “This is a very delicate subject, which has a moral dimension, since it concerns the Parthenon, the worldwide symbol of democracy. The way it is being handled confirms that it’s a flashy pre-election affair, which makes negotiations difficult. I don’t see any possible trade, only the possibility, in case the British Museum is left with an empty hall, of filling it for some time with famous artifacts from Greek museums. But certainly not the other way around, since Greece has never recognized British ownership of the marbles. This makes any lending impossible. It’s an extremely complex issue, one that only capable and courageous diplomats will be able to untangle.”