Greece in ‘preliminary’ talks with British Museum over Parthenon marbles | Parthenon marbles

Senior Greek officials have held “preliminary” talks with the British Museum in what could amount to a tectonic shift in resolving the world’s oldest cultural dispute: the repatriation of the 5th-century Parthenon Marbles to Athens.

Revelations about the negotiations were first reported on Saturday by Ta Nea, who said officials including Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis met George Osborne, the British Museum’s chairman, at a five-star hotel in London no later than Monday.

Insiders in Athens described the report, which gave a detailed account of where the talks took place, as “not only credible but very exciting”.

“It is true that there is a dialogue between the Greek government and the British Museum,” the country’s minister of state, Giorgos Gerapetritis, told the Guardian. “At the moment these are preliminary discussions and, yes, I have met with the chairman of the British Museum, George Osborne, [to discuss the issue].”

The news came five days after Mitsotakis told an audience at the London School of Economics that he “felt” progress was being made on the issue and that a “win-win solution” was possible.

“We have seen progress,” said the Greek leader, who has made the reunification of classical statuary with the sculptures that remained in Athens a cultural priority. “I sense momentum.”

The dispute over the marbles – removed in controversial circumstances by Lord Elgin, who was then ambassador to the Ottoman Empire of which present-day Greece was then part – has raged for more than 200 years.

The British Museum acquired the antiquities, which include 75 meters of the Parthenon’s original 160-metre-long frieze, in 1816 when, bankrupt, discouraged and plagued by syphilis, the diplomat was forced to part with it.

Elgin, who had originally hoped to adorn his Scottish estate with the treasures, maintained that he had obtained a “firman” from the Ottoman authorities which allowed his agents in Athens to dismantle the coins. It has since been revealed that much of the statuary had been violently detached, with slabs now in the possession of the British Museum hacked from the monument using saws.

Ta Nea reported that the first of several behind-the-scenes meetings took place in London between Osborne and Mitsotakis in 2021. The former chancellor followed up with further talks with two senior Greek government ministers.

“At least two of these meetings took place at the residence of the Greek ambassador in Mayfair. Another took place just this week in a hotel in Knightsbridge,” wrote the newspaper’s London correspondent, Yannis Andritsopoulos. .

“Discussions were kept away from the public. The president of London’s largest museum first visited the [Greek] Ambassador’s residence, 51 Upper Brook Street, in mid-November 2021 to hold “exploratory talks” with Mitsotakis on the fate of the 2,500-year-old sculptures.

Negotiations, he said, evolved further this week when Osborne traveled to the Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge to meet the Greek prime minister “a year after their first secret meeting”.

The dispute over the ownership of the sculptures has descended into acrimony, with Greece’s culture minister accusing Elgin of committing a “blatant act of serial theft”.

As the rhetoric intensified, campaigners, buoyed by growing British support for their return, pressured London’s premier cultural institution to change its stance.

Gerapetritis conceded the talks were as much about ‘establishing principles’ [of discussion] as ameliorating the increasingly toxic atmosphere that had arisen over the issue. Both sides, he said, were aware of their “red lines” and a deal was far from done.

“While there is a common understanding, many details still need to be ironed out,” added the minister, who described Mitsotakis as giving him a mandate to continue the talks.

Asked about his face-to-face talks with Osborne, he insisted: “The discussions are not very specific. Rather, we try to establish a good channel of dialogue.

In August, the deputy director of the British Museum, Jonathan Williams, announced that the institution was keen to “change the temperature of the debate”.

“There is room for a really dynamic and positive conversation with which new ways of working together can be found,” Williams told The Sunday Times.

A statement released by the British Museum said the talks were part of efforts to create “a new Parthenon partnership with Greece”.

“We will talk to anyone, including the Greek government, about how to get things done. We operate within the law and we will not dismantle our large collection because it tells a unique story of our common humanity. But we are looking for new, positive, long-term partnerships with countries and communities around the world, and that of course includes Greece.

In the past, Mitsotakis’ centre-right government has offered to offer the UK a rotating exhibition of antiquities never before seen outside Greece in exchange for the Parthenon sculptures.

“There are a lot of red lines; the Disposal Act 1963 for the British Museum, recognition of British ownership [of the marbles] for us,” the politician said, explaining that Athens would never accept the repatriation of the masterpieces on loan.

“There is still a long way to go, but we will continue our discussions. It is very good that we are now trying to establish a much wider cooperation with the British Museum, a cooperation which does not only concern classical antiquities but also the Byzantine treasures which we would be ready to send.

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