Parthenon Marbles Dispute Erupts as U.K. Leader Abruptly Cancels Meeting With Greek Counterpart

The sudden decision came after prime minister Mitsotakis said keeping the marbles in Britain was akin to cutting the Mona Lisa in half.

The Parthenon in the Acropolis of Athens. Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

A day after Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said keeping the Parthenon Marbles in Britain was akin to chopping the Mona Lisa in half, it became evident that the clear-cut comparison (pun intended) had not sat well with the British prime minister, Rishi Sunak. He swiftly shelved his meeting with the Greek leader, embroiling the nations further in a diplomatic feud. While speaking to the BBC on Sunday, Mitsotakis had pushed for his long-expressed wish to repatriate the 2,500-year-old Greek artifacts, calling the sculptures, also known as the Elgin marbles, “essentially stolen,” and urging that the monument be made whole again.

“This is not in my mind an ownership question,” Mitsotakis told the BBC. “This is a reunification argument. Where can you best appreciate what is essentially one monument? It’s as if I told you that you would cut the Mona Lisa in half, and you would have half of it at the Louvre and half of it at the British Museum. Do you think your viewers would appreciate the beauty of the painting in such a way? Well, this is exactly what happened with the Parthenon sculptures.”

Sunak’s office abruptly canceled the planned Tuesday exchange between both leaders because, as sources close to the conservative government told reporters, “it became impossible for this meeting to go ahead following commentary regarding the Elgin marbles prior to it.” As an alternative, a meeting with Britain’s deputy prime minister was proposed, but declined by the Greek leader. Mitsotakis responded with accusations that Sunak shelved their appointment because he doubted the justification for holding on to the marbles.

“I express my dismay that the British Prime Minister canceled our scheduled meeting just hours before it was due to take place,” said Mitsotakis in a statement. “Anyone who believes in the correctness and justice of their positions is never afraid of opposing arguments.” On Tuesday, his government spokesperson Pavlos Marinakis went on to tell SKAI TV that the axed meeting amounted to a lack of “respect for the prime minister and our country.”

Sunak has said he is against returning the marbles, on display in the British Museum since 1817, and expressed his support for U.K. law forbidding their deaccession. The marbles “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,” a spokesperson for Number 10 Downing Street told the media. In response to the British Museum’s floating idea to loan the sculptures to Athens, they said, “we have no plans to change our approach and certainly we think that the museum is the right place for them.”

In 1801, Lord Elgin negotiated the removal of the statues from the Parthenon, and transfer to Britain, with permission from the Ottoman Empire, which controlled the region.

Sunak and Mitsotakis were scheduled to discuss bilateral relations and topics such as wars in Ukraine, Gaza, the climate crisis, and migration. But by Tuesday, the BBC reported the U.K. prime minister’s office had felt betrayed by Mitsotakis, whom they were assured would not bring up the marbles. A promise Greek sources denied.

It would have been difficult for Mitsotakis to dodge the question by a BBC journalist, who asked him on Sunday where the Parthenon Marbles looked better: in the Acropolis in Athens, where the fifth-century B.C.E. sculptures originally adorned the ancient Greek temple devoted to the goddess Athena, or in the British Museum.

“They do look better in the Acropolis Museum… that was built for that purpose,” said Mitsotakis.

In a statement to Artnet News, a spokesperson for Number 10 Downing Street would not confirm the reasons for the canceled meeting. “The U.K.-Greece relationship is hugely important. From our work together in NATO, to tackling shared challenges like illegal migration, to joint efforts to resolve the crisis in the Middle East and war in Ukraine,” they said, adding that the deputy prime minister had been available “to discuss these important issues.”

In what has been depicted as a further political snub by the British media, Mitsotakis was able to meet with the Labour Party leader Keir Starmer on Monday evening. The left-wing party has since clarified that if elected to power, a Labour government would not block a loan agreement with Greece to allow the sculptures’ temporary exhibition in Athens, falling short of promising to return them, as other party members have done in the past.

Responding to the diplomatic rift, a Labour Party spokesperson said: “If the prime minister isn’t able to meet with a European ally with whom Britain has important economic ties, this is further proof he isn’t able to provide the serious economic leadership our country requires.”


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