Will Greece Deny British Museum Loan Over Elgin Marbles Controversy?

Part of the Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum. Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images.

As Greece continues to pressure the UK to return the Parthenon marbles, Athens’s Museum of Cycladic Art is dragging its heels in regard to the loan of a major antiquity to the British Museum, which owns the contested statues, for an upcoming exhibition.

In a conversation with the Art Newspaper, British Museum spokesperson confirmed that “we have requested to borrow” a piece, but that the Greek museum had yet to respond one way or the other. The classical sculpture exhibition, titled “Defining Beauty: the Body in Ancient Greek Art,” is scheduled to open March 6 and run through June 22.

The marbles have become an international point of contention in recent months, in part due to the involvement of Amal Alamuddin, the human rights lawyer who became a tabloid sensation when she married actor George Clooney last year. Following her honeymoon, Alamuddin traveled to Greece to officially advise the government in its efforts to reclaim the statues, which were taken from Greece by Lord Elgin in the early 18th century.

The controversy heated up last month when the British Museum unexpectedly lent one of the Parthenon marbles, a headless statue of the river god Ilissos, to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg—the first time one of the Parthenon marbles had left the UK since entering the British Museum collection in 1816.

Greece was outraged, arguing that the loan invalidated the long-held British claim that the statues were too delicate to move, a major argument against repatriation. Although Greek prime minister Antonis Samaras described the loan as “an affront to the Greek people,” the British Museum claims to be considering requests from other museums hoping to exhibit the statues.

It would appear that denying a loan to the British Museum is Greece’s way of getting back at the institution, despite a previously cordial curatorial relationship between the two museums. (Presently, the Museum of Cycladic Art has 24 objects on loan from the British Museum.) If Greece does not fulfill the request soon, it will be difficult for the British Museum to install the piece in the exhibition as currently planned. The show will move some of the Elgin marbles, which, save for the Ilissos figure, have never left their permanent display, to a temporary exhibition gallery.

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