Law that prevents return of ‘stolen’ Elgin Marbles could be changed, says declassified document

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The Elgin Marbles are displayed at the British Museum - Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
The Elgin Marbles are displayed at the British Museum - Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The Elgin Marbles could be returned by changing the law, newly declassified government documents have revealed.

The British Museum is prohibited from deaccessioning from its collection under a 1963 Act of Parliament. Bosses have pointed to the legislation after receiving a request to return once looted goods.

This week, previously classified documents obtained by the Art Newspaper emerged in which the British ambassador in Athens in 1991 admitted that the issue of the Marbles was one “we can never win”.

“The best we can do is to keep our heads down as far as possible, and avoid using defensive arguments here in Greece which will sound hollow in Greek ears,” David Miers wrote in a Foreign Office report.

“For instance, I do not think the argument about the trustees of the museum is a very good one for use here. The Greeks know that we could legislate [to allow deaccessioning] if we wanted: the problem for them is that we don’t want [to].”

The declassified file deals with a 1991 visit to Greece by Timothy Renton, then Conservative arts minister.

'I sympathise with the case for restitution to Athens,' Boris Johnson reportedly said

The notes have surfaced following a meeting between Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Greek prime minister, and Boris Johnson - the first face-to-face meeting between the two leaders to formally raise the issue of the Marbles.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis raised the issue of the Elgin Marbles when he met Boris Johnson in London this month - Kate Green/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Kyriakos Mitsotakis raised the issue of the Elgin Marbles when he met Boris Johnson in London this month - Kate Green/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Mr Johnson said he understood the “strength of feeling” of the Greek people but told Mr Mitsotakis he would have to take up his cause with the trustees of the British Museum, as it was not a governmental issue.

However, a letter reportedly written by Mr Johnson to a provincial Greek official in 2012 paints a different picture.

In the letter, written when he was the Mayor of London, Mr Johnson admitted that the Parthenon sculptures should “never have been removed from the Acropolis”.

But he ended his letter: “Much as I sympathise with the case for restitution to Athens, I feel that on balance I must defend the interests of London.”

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