The British government tried in the early 2000s to favor a loan to Greece of the Parthenon friezes, owned by the British Museum, in exchange for Athens’ support for London’s hosting of the 2012 Olympics, archives released Friday show, news agencies reported. France-Presse and Agerpres.
The frieze of the Parthenon in the British MuseumPhoto: Jay Shaw Baker-NurPhoto / Shutterstock Editorial / Profimedia Images
This episode in the bilateral dispute is revealed in the context in which tensions remain high between the two countries in relation to the famous marbles, the return of which has been demanded by Athens for decades.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak recently canceled at the last minute a meeting with his Greek counterpart, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who was visiting London, accusing him of breaking his promise not to raise the issue publicly during his trip .
London claims the sculptures were “legally acquired” in 1802, while Greece claims they were “looted” while the country was under Ottoman rule.
Declassified British official archives, and in particular correspondence dating from 2002 and 2003, show that the two governments were close to an agreement at the time.
“A strong exchange currency”
Greece was proposing the return of the friezes on a long-term loan, to display them in Athens, in a new museum at the foot of the Acropolis, the opening of which was to coincide with the 2004 Olympic Games, held in the Greek capital.
At the same time, Tony Blair’s Labor government was mobilizing to support London’s – ultimately victorious – bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games.
In this context, Tony Blair’s cultural adviser, Sarah Hunter, wrote in a memo to the Prime Minister that the friezes could represent “a powerful bargaining chip”.
She suggested the government should “publicly and privately encourage” the British Museum “to find an arrangement within 12 months”.
In its note, the council was favorable to the solution of a long-term loan proposed by Athens and denounced the “intransigence” of the British Museum. She also supported the idea of a bilateral treaty that would provide a framework for this loan.
Visibly convinced, Tony Blair handwrote “yes” on the note, suggesting that the task of “negotiating this” should be entrusted to David Owen, the former foreign secretary.
The initiative remained fruitless, with the British Museum declaring four months later, in August 2003, that its officials “can foresee no circumstances in which they would be able to comply with the Greek government’s request”.
Lately, museum officials have supported the idea of such a long-term loan, but the conservative government has said it strongly opposes the return of these antiquities to Greece.