Boris Johnson has used his first interview with a European newspaper since becoming the UK’s prime minister to issue a point-blank rejection of the Parthenon marbles being returned to Greece.
Johnson insisted that the sculptures, removed from the monument by Lord Elgin in circumstances that have since spurred one of the world’s most famous cultural rows, would remain in Britain because they had been legally acquired.
“I understand the strong feelings of the Greek people – and indeed prime minister [Kyriakos] Mitsotakis – on the issue,” he told the Greek newspaper Ta Nea when asked to comment on his counterpart’s offer, made in an interview with the Observer in 2019, to lend priceless artefacts to London in return for putting the marbles on display in Athens this year.
“But the UK government has a firm longstanding position on the sculptures, which is that they were legally acquired by Lord Elgin under the appropriate laws of the time and have been legally owned by the British Museum’s trustees since their acquisition.”
Johnson’s intervention, though clearly aimed at drawing a line under the dispute, is bound to ignite further controversy. Last year, Greece’s culture minister, Lina Mendoni, branded Elgin a “serial thief” who used illegal tactics to take the marbles.
The prime minister, who posed for Ta Nea in his Downing Street office next to a plaster cast bust of his “personal hero”, Pericles, spoke within weeks of Greece marking the bicentennial of its war of independence.
In the run-up to the celebrations, Athens has reinvigorated its campaign to repatriate the fifth-century BC carvings, regarded as a high point of classical art.
Greece has long argued that reunification of the sculptures, displayed in museums across Europe but mostly in London, is integral to understanding the artworks in the context of the temple they once embellished.
Of the monumental 160-metre-long Parthenon frieze, executed by the master sculptor Phidias at the behest of Pericles, more than 80 metres are exhibited in the British Museum. Fifty metres of the 115-block frieze is displayed in the Acropolis Museum, purpose-built to house the treasures at the foot of the masterpiece.
Highlighting the importance of the issue for his centre-right government, Mitsotakis proposed shortly after assuming office that treasures that had never been shown abroad before be exhibited in London in exchange for the marbles being returned to Athensthis year.
“I don’t think [Britain] should be fighting a losing battle. Eventually this is going to be a losing battle … At the end of the day there is going to be mounting pressure on this issue,” he told the Observer, referring to repeated surveys showing the vast majority of Britons expressing support for the Greek cause.
As a monument of cultural significance globally, the Acropolis did not solely belong to Greece, he said. “It’s a monument of global cultural heritage. But if you really want to see the monument in its unity you have to see what we call the Parthenon sculptures in situ … it’s a question of uniting the monument.”
In a move that some believed might embarrass Britain, France agreed to return to Athens part of the frieze that the Louvre had long regarded as one of the most precious pieces in its possession, in return for the museum being loaned spectacular Greek bronzes that had never been seen before.
The positive response, made with unexpected alacrity, came after Mitsotakis lodged the request in July 2019 during talks with his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, on his first official visit to Paris.
Johnson described himself as “a keen scholar of Greek history” in the Ta Nea interview.
But while extolling the contribution of ancient Greece to western civilisation and emphasising “Britain’s crucial role” in the 1821 Greek war of independence, the prime minister avoided any mention of the antiquities being loaned to Athens.
Instead, he told the paper the UK was focused on deepening ties with “a peace-loving international partner” that the British politician, a former foreign secretary, said played an important role in Europe, Nato and the “pivotal region” connecting Europe to the Middle East.
Aside from boosting a trade relationship worth €6.5bn – “last year over €1.5m-worth of British lemons were exported to Greece” – he said his government was also working to protect the rights of thousands of British nationals who had made the country their home. Johnson’s own father, Stanley, who owns a villa overlooking the Aegean, is among them.
“This is the beginning of a new partnership with our European friends, one that builds on our common bonds of friendship and cooperation, but with the UK acting with an independent voice to speak on the things that matter to us,” he said.
“2021 is of course a significant year for Greece and a very exciting time to be reinvigorating our relationship with the Greek people.”
In 1816 the British Museum acquired the sculptures from the then bankrupt Elgin, who, as Britain’s ambassador to the Sublime Porte, had ordered them to be torn down from the Parthenon after purportedly receiving a permit from the Ottoman forces occupying Athens at the time.
Reacting to Johnson’s remarks, the Greek culture minister threw down the gauntlet, saying Athens could provide “the necessary documentary evidence” to prove that the British Museum possessed the sculptures illegally.
In written comments she said: “Upon careful review of the statements by prime minister Johnson, it is clear that he has not been properly informed … of the new historical data regarding Greece’s occupation by the Ottomans, which show there was never a legitimate acquisition of the Parthenon sculptures by Lord Elgin, and therefore neither by the British Museum.
“For Greece, the British Museum does not have legitimate ownership, or possession, of the sculptures. The Parthenon, as a symbol of Unesco and western civilisation, reflects universal values. We are all obliged to work towards this direction.”