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Boris Johnson rules out returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece

Boris Johnson rules out returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece: PM argues British Museum is rightful owner of 2,500-year-old ‘legally acquired’ sculptures

  • Boris Johnson rejects often-repeated requests from Athens to return sculptures
  • PM says they were ‘legally acquired under the appropriate laws of the time’
  • Greece insists the 5th century BC sculptures, were stolen from the Acropolis

Britain is the legitimate owner of the Elgin Marbles and they will not be returned to Greece, Boris Johnson insisted yesterday.

In his first interview with a European newspaper since taking office, the Prime Minister rejected the often-repeated requests from Athens to return the 2,500-year-old sculptures.

He told Greece’s Ta Nea newspaper: ‘I understand the strong feelings of the Greek people – and indeed prime minister [Kyriakos] Mitsotakis.

‘But the UK Government has a firm long-standing 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.’ 

The Elgin Marbles were taken from the Arcopolis in Athens more than 200 years ago. Greece insists the 5th century BC sculptures were stolen, but Boris Johnson says they were ‘legally acquired by Lord Elgin under the appropriate laws of the time’

Although Mr Johnson has previously said the Marbles should remain in the British Museum, it is the first time he has commented on the issue as Prime Minister.

The remarks are likely to trigger fresh controversy. Greece insists the sculptures, which date from 5th century BC, were stolen by Elgin, a diplomat, from the Acropolis in Athens more than 200 years ago.

Politicians, including Jeremy Corbyn, have backed returning the Marbles – but the Government insists they were purchased legitimately and have been painstakingly preserved in the UK.

The row intensified last year when the EU suggested the return of the Marbles could form part of the Brexit trade deal.

Mr Johnson, who was a classics student at Oxford, described himself as ‘a keen scholar of Greek history’ in the Ta Nea interview.

Boris Johnson, who studied classics at Oxford, made the comments during his his first interview with a European newspaper since becoming PM.  The Marbles, which show scenes from Greek mythology and Athenian ritual, decorated the Parthenon until it was blown up in warfare in 1687

Boris Johnson, who studied classics at Oxford, made the comments during his his first interview with a European newspaper since becoming PM.  The Marbles, which show scenes from Greek mythology and Athenian ritual, decorated the Parthenon until it was blown up in warfare in 1687

His ‘personal hero’ is the Athenian statesman Pericles, who led the artistic drive to build religious monuments on the Acropolis. 

The Marbles, which show scenes from Greek mythology and Athenian ritual, decorated the Parthenon until it was blown up in warfare in 1687.

After their purchase by Elgin from the ruling Ottoman Turks, the sculptures were shipped to London, finally reaching the British Museum in 1817. 

The museum’s website insists Elgin removed them ‘with the full knowledge and permission of the Ottoman authorities’.

A long-running historical dispute: What are the Elgin Marbles?

The Elgin Marbles are a collection of classical Greek marble sculptures, inscriptions and architectural members that were mostly created by Phidias and his assistants.

The 7th Earl of Elgin, Thomas Bruce, removed the Parthenon Marble pieces from the Acropolis in Athens while serving as the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799 to 1803.

In 1801, the Earl claimed to have obtained a permit from the Ottoman authorities to remove pieces from the Parthenon. 

As the Acropolis was still an Ottoman military fort, Elgin required permission to enter the site.

His agents subsequently removed half of the surviving sculptures, as well as architectural members and sculpture from the Propylaea and Erechtheum.

The excavation and removal was completed in 1812 at a personal cost of around £70,000.

The sculptures were shipped to Britain, but in Greece, the Scots aristocrat was accused of looting and vandalism.

They were bought by the British Government in 1816 and placed in the British Museum. They still stand on view in the purpose-built Duveen Gallery.

Greece has sought their return from the British Museum through the years, to no avail.

The authenticity of Elgin’s permit to remove the sculptures from the Parthenon has been widely disputed, especially as the original document has been lost. Many claim it was not legal.

However, others argue that since the Ottomans had controlled Athens since 1460, their claims to the artefacts were legal and recognisable.

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