The British Museum has confirmed for the first time that it is engaged in “constructive discussions” with Greece about the return of some of the Parthenon marbles.
Speculation has intensified in recent months that a deal could be struck to return some of the marble statues, which have been on display in the British Museum since 1832 after they were controversially stripped from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin, a British diplomat.
Senior Greek ministers confirmed last month that secret talks between the museum’s chairman, George Osborne, and the Greek government had been ongoing for more than a year. The Telegraph reported on Wednesday that an agreement had been drawn up between the two parties which could lead to some items being returned early this year.
However, Greek sources indicated that the two parties are still some distance apart. A well-placed senior Greek official told the Guardian on Wednesday: “This is not true. there is no such agreement.”
The museum said in a statement: “We have said publicly that we are actively seeking a new Parthenon partnership with our friends in Greece and as we enter a new year, constructive discussions are ongoing.”
While Osborne has been open for some time about his willingness to strike a deal to break the impasse over the highly disputed sculptures, the museum had not previously confirmed that discussions were actively underway.
Greece has long insisted that it wants the marbles back permanently. However, the British Museum’s firm position is that any possible agreement will only return items on loan. The British government said last month it had no intention of amending the British Museums Act, which prevents the museum from permanently returning any of its collection except in very limited circumstances.
“We are not going to dismantle our vast collection, as it tells a unique story of our common humanity,” the museum said in a statement at the time.
The museum will soon reveal details of a long-planned £1 billion modernization plan called the Rosetta Project, which will see a “complete reimagining” of the museum and a major overhaul of many of its galleries.
The Parthenon galleries, which have been in a poor state of repair for some time, are expected to be prioritized for renovation, which could provide a convenient moment to lend some of the items to Greece if agreement can be reached.
However, Greek and international calls for the permanent return of the sculpture, built in recent years, are unlikely to be satisfied by a loan. Last month, the Vatican returned three Parthenon sculptures from its collection to Greece, saying the donation was “a concrete sign of [Pope Francis’s] sincere desire to follow the ecumenical path of truth”.
A spokesman for the Parthenon Project, which is campaigning for the sculpture’s return to Athens, said it welcomed signs that “a solution to this long-standing issue is finally within reach”.
“We have advocated for an agreement that is beneficial to both Greece and Britain, centered on a cultural partnership between the two countries. This would see the British Museum continue in its role as a ‘museum of the world’ displaying magnificent Greek artefacts as part of rotating exhibitions, with the Parthenon sculptures reunited in their rightful home in Athens.