Greece offers sculpture swap in bid for Parthenon marbles

1 September 2019
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To Greece’s delight, a bust of Pericles now graces 10 Downing Street. Within hours of assuming office as prime minister, Boris Johnson had placed a plaster likeness of the Athenian soldier-statesman, whom he has long admired, on his desk. Johnson’s knowledge of the ancient world – he studied classics at Oxford and once boasted that he could recite the first 100 lines of Homer’s Iliad – is regarded with awe in modern Greece.

But that affinity will soon be tested in the run-up to Greece’s bicentennial independence celebrations, when Athens steps up its campaign to win back from the British Museum the Parthenon sculptures that once adorned Pericles’s masterpiece.

Speaking to a British newspaper for the first time since his election in July, the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has told the Observer he is willing to allow treasures that have never been shown abroad before to be exhibited in London in exchange for the marbles being returned to Athens for 2021.

“Our wish and ambition is to create the necessary conditions for Greek cultural heritage to travel the world and in so doing convey the great and essential contribution of our country to western civilisation,” he said in his office last week. “In this context, given the significance of 2021, I will propose to Boris: ‘As a first move, loan me the sculptures for a certain period of time and I will send you very important artefacts that have never left Greece to be exhibited in the British Museum’.”

As Athens emerges from a decade of bruising austerity, battling bankruptcy on the frontline of the eurozone crisis, this will be the first such proposal put to London in years.

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