ATHENS, Greece — Britain and Greece have managed to disagree largely civilly for decades on the world’s most intractable cultural heritage dispute: Where is the right place for some of the most beautiful ancient Greek statues ever made, long on display in London? 200 years, but Greece clearly wants it back.
Diplomacy failed when British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak abruptly canceled a planned meeting with his Greek counterpart Kyriakos Mitsotakis in London on Tuesday.
Mitsotakis openly expressed his discomfort. Sunak’s spokesman linked the snub to the Greek leader using British television to reiterate his call a day earlier for the return of 2,500-year-old masterpieces.
Here’s a look at what the dispute is about and what could happen next.
These were carved in 447-432 BC to decorate the iconic Parthenon, the Acropolis hill temple of Athena, the city’s patron goddess.
Independent statues filled the triangular pediments on the marble columns on the short sides of the building. Immediately below stood sculpted panels at intervals along the four sides, and a continuous strip of relief sculpture (frieze) depicting a religious procession ran around the outer wall inside the portico. They were originally painted in dark colors, which have since disappeared.
Despite war, earthquakes, foreign invasions, and the temple’s conversion first as a church and then as a mosque, all have survived mostly intact for more than 1,000 years. But in 1687 the Parthenon was blown up by a besieging Venetian army and most of the works were lost.
The survivors are now roughly divided between the British Museum and the Acropolis Museum in Athens; smaller pieces are held in a handful of other European museums.
There are 17 pediment figures, 15 panels and 247 feet (75 meters) of frieze in London.
These were known for decades as the Elgin Marbles, in memory of the Scottish nobleman who started the issue more than 200 years ago. Even the British Museum now uses the preferred Greek form: Parthenon Statues. Also, “marbles” lend themselves to a lot of bad puns.
Ancient Greek sculptures have been admired for thousands of years and serve as an important artistic reference point. For many, the Parthenon Statues are the most striking example of this.
They form a coherent group, designed and executed by top artists (the Leonardo da Vincis of the time) for a single building project aimed at celebrating the peak of Athens’ glory.
More than a century after the devastating eruption, Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, with whom Athens was still reluctant, obtained permission to remove some of the statues.
They were sent to Britain and eventually joined the collection of the British Museum in 1816, five years before the uprising that created an independent Greece.
Athens says the artefacts were removed illegally and should join other surviving fragments of the group in the specially built Acropolis Museum at the foot of the ancient citadel.
According to the Greek argument, this would allow them to be seen against the background of the Parthenon, where all the statues have been removed to protect them from pollution and the elements.
Greece’s campaign was vociferously supported in the 1980s by actress and singer Melina Mercouri, who was then serving as minister of culture. It has waxed and waned since then but has never been dropped and has been handled with enthusiasm by Mitsotakis.
In his interview with the BBC on Sunday, which triggered a diplomatic dispute, Mitsotakis compared the current situation to Leonardo’s Mona Lisa being split in two and divided between two countries.
The British Museum says the sculptures were acquired legally and form an integral part of the display of world cultural history.
It is said that he is open to loan requests, but in such a case, it is necessary to be sure that he will get the works back. Therefore, Athens must first recognize that the institution is the legal owner of the works; Mitsotakis rejected this.
Successive UK governments have insisted that the statues remain in place.
Despite the current row, the head of the British Museum said earlier this year he had held “constructive” talks with Greece about a compromise “win-win” deal.
George Osborne said he was “reasonably optimistic” about reaching a deal but warned it “might not lead to anything”.
Greek officials insisted on Tuesday that talks would continue.
Meanwhile, Athens is trying to collect as many of the smaller pieces as possible from other European museums. This situation will increase the pressure on the British Museum, while the British public seems to be increasingly supporting Greece’s request.
In January, following an initiative by Pope Francis, the Vatican Museums returned three small pieces of Parthenon statues they had held for two centuries. A year ago, a museum in Sicily returned its own small piece.