Boris Johnson has told the Greek Prime Minister that the issue of the Parthenon sculptures was “one for the representatives of the British Museum” during negotiations in Downing Street.
At a meeting in Number 10 on Tuesday, Kyriakos Mitsotakis pressed Mr Johnson on the long line over the sculptures, also known as the “Elgin Balls”.
But the prime minister, despite telling his Greek counterpart that he understood the “strength of emotion” in Greece on the issue, deviated from the responsibility of the British government in the 200-year-old dispute.
After leaders’ talks, a Downing Street spokesman said: “Prime Minister Mitsotakis raised the issue of the Parthenon sculptures.
“The Prime Minister said he understood the strength of the feelings of the Greek people on this issue, but reiterated Britain’s long-standing position that this matter falls under the trustees of the British Museum.
“The leaders agreed that this issue in no way affects the strength of the partnership between Britain and Greece.”
The position seemed to represent a shift from Mr Johnson, who as late as March said it was the “long-standing position” of the British government that the sculptures were “legally acquired” by the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Lord Elgin, in the early 19th century and was now “legally owned” by British Museums trustees.
Earlier Tuesday, Mr Johnson’s official spokesman had said the possession of the sculptures was “purely for the museum” and “not one for the British government”.
The 17 figures were taken by Lord Elgin’s staff about 200 years ago and have been the subject of a long battle.
The Greek prime minister claims they were “stolen” from Athens. Prior to his visit to London, Mitsotakis told the Daily Telegraph: “They belong to the Acropolis Museum and we need to discuss this issue seriously.”
Before meeting Mr Johnson, he had also raised the prospect of lending other treasures to the British Museum in return for the Parthenon sculptures.
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The British Museum’s website describes its position on the dispute that Lord Elgin’s transport of the sculptures to England took place “with the full knowledge and permission of the legal authorities of the time in both Athens and London”.
It adds: “The policies of the administrators and their willingness to consider loans to Athens have been made clear to the Greek government, but successive Greek governments have refused to consider borrowing or recognizing the administrators’ ownership of the Parthenon sculptures in their custody.
“This has made any meaningful discussion on the issue virtually impossible.”
The Parthenon sculptures were made between 447 BC. and 432 BC. and decorated the Parthenon on the Acropolis of Athens.
Lord Elgin removed about half of the remaining sculptures from the ruins of the Parthenon between 1801 and 1805 before entering the British Museum.