Deal on the Marbles?

Greek and British officials may be near a breakthrough on the touchy issue of the British Museum’s Elgin Collection of sculptures from the Parthenon, according to a report from London yesterday. The London museum has confirmed that it has surreptitiously entered negotiations with the Greek government on the return of the 5th century BC marble works to Athens in the form of a loan, yesterday’s Sunday Times said. The paper said British Museum director Neil MacGregor has confirmed that the museum would consider a loan. This would be at odds with the museum’s previous policy, when it was implied that if ever lent to Greece the works might never be sent back to London. The Greek government has repeatedly appealed for the sculptures, which were removed at the beginning of the 19th century by Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin, to be returned to Athens for the 2004 Olympics. To that purpose, a new museum is to be built under the Acropolis, allowing the Parthenon sculptures to be displayed in a special hall with the ancient temple of Athena visible through glass walls. But it seems increasingly unlikely that the 94-million-euro structure will be ready on time, as the foundation stone-laying ceremony is already over a year late. Furthermore, the project has run into serious legal difficulties following court action by Athenians concerned that construction work for the new building will destroy antiquities found on the plot, which is beside the Makriyianni metro station. The Sunday Times said one option being considered by the Greek government involved a treaty between Athens and London that would allow the marbles to be shared under EU supervision. The Greek press attache in Athens, Nicholas Papadakis, voiced high optimism. «This is the first time that there have been protracted talks and we find it very encouraging,» he told the paper. «I now have no doubt that the marbles will be returned to Athens.» Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos yesterday issued a statement that did little to clarify the situation, but implied that a deal might be in the offing. «(Our longstanding proposal is) to create a common, joint exhibition of the Parthenon Marbles,» he said. «The Marbles may thus come to Athens for the 2004 Olympic Games… We are prepared to sign all necessary treaties… In any case, both countries are EU members.»