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Rishi Sunak to reject Greek leader’s appeal for return of Elgin Marbles

Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis says he will raise issue in meetings Sunak and Labour leader Keir Starmer

Sophie Wingate
Monday 27 November 2023 14:22 GMT
Greece wants its treasured Elgin marbles back from the British

Rishi Sunak will reject pleas to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece when he meets the country’s prime minister this week, Downing Street has indicated.

No 10 has insisted that saying the British Museum was the “right place” for the treasures ahead of talks.

Athens has long demanded the return of the Parthenon Sculptures, which were removed from Greece by Lord Elgin in the early 19th century, when he was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis has said he will raise the issue during meetings with both Mr Sunak and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer during his visit to London.

But Downing Street pushed back against the Greek leader’s likening of the British Museum’s possession of the sculptures to the Mona Lisa painting being “cut in half”.

Mr Sunak’s spokesman stressed the PM’s support for the law that prevents the marbles from being permanently returned, and suggested he would not be in favour of any loan arrangement.

British Museum chairman George Osborne, the former chancellor, has previously said he is exploring ways for the Elgin Marbles to be displayed in Greece – with speculation that this could involve a loan deal in which part of the sculptures would be sent to Athens.

Asked about such an agreement, Mr Sunak’s spokesman told reporters: “We have no plans to change our approach and certainly we think that the museum is the right place for them.

“I haven’t asked him specifically about short-term or new ideas that have been put forward, but I think he’s been fairly robust on his position.”

The No 10 official also said the government had “no plans” to change the 1963 British Museum Act which prohibits the removal of objects from the institution’s collection.

“We have cared for the marbles for generations and our position is we want that to continue. The world comes to the UK regularly to see the marbles and there are no plans to change that or to change the law,” he said.

Sir Keir has indicated he will tell Mr Mitsotakis that a Labour government would not change the law – but that he would not stand in the way of a loan deal that was mutually acceptable to the British Museum and the Greek government.

Greece’s prime minister on Sunday argued a return was about “reunification” of the monument, saying: “It’s as if I told you that you would cut the Mona Lisa in half, and you will have half of it at the Louvre and half of it at the British Museum.”

Asked if Mr Sunak recognised that characterisation, his spokesman said: “Obviously it’s not something we would agree with.

“These were legally acquired at the time, they’re legally owned by the trustees of the museum. We support that position and there’s no plan to change the law which governs it.”

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