The UK and Greece are entangled in a growing diplomatic row regarding the Elgin Marbles.
Rishi Sunak cancelled a planned meeting with Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis after he repeated demands for the marbles to be returned to Greece on Sunday.
While on a visit to the UK, he said that the current situation – where most of the sculptures are in the British Museum and a smaller set are in Athens – was like the Mona Lisa being ‘cut in half’.
Below, MailOnline takes a look into the historical background of the growing row.
The UK and Greece are entangled in a growing diplomatic row regarding the Elgin Marbles
The Elgin Marbles also known as the Parthenon marbles was sculpted by Phidias, are a series of Ancient Greek sculptures created between 447BC and 432BC. They were previously housed in the Parthenon in Athens (pictured)
Rishi Sunak has snubbed talks with the Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis over his demand for the return of the Elgin Marbles
What are the Elgin Marbles and how did they end up in England?
The marbles, also known as The Parthenon Sculptures, are a series of Ancient Greek sculptures created between 447BC and 432BC.
They were the work of Greek architect Phidias, who also created a statue of the ancient god Zeus, which was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
The artefacts, an ode to the Greek goddess Athena, are made up of 17 figures that adorned the Parthenon in Athens.
After standing for 2,000 years, the Acropolis was for the most part destroyed as the Ottoman Empire – who at the time ruled Greece – became embroiled in a war with Venice.
The remaining sculptures were removed from the ruins of the Parthenon by Lord Elgin and brought to Britain between 1802 and 1812.
During this time, Elgin was also the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.
The British Government’s longstanding position has been that Elgin had permission to take the marbles.
Critics say there are no surviving documents which support this claim.
But a report published earlier this year by leading expert Sir Noel Malcolm insisted this was the case.
The paper for the Policy Exchange think tank also highlighted that the removal of the marbles actually saved them from serious damage, dispersal and destruction.
In 1816, the marbles were handed over to the care of the British Museum, where they have remained ever since.
Athens is still home to a smaller 164ft (50-metre) section of the sculptures, but the majority – around 260ft – are in the UK.
The Elgin Marbles get their name from Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, who took them from Athens
The Elgin Marbles (pictured) are a 17-figure collection of classical Greek marble sculptures made by architect and sculptor Phidias, a Greek sculptor whose statue of Zeus, the god of the sky in ancient Greek mytholgy, was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world
The Elgin Marbles were were taken from the Parthenon in Athens by the then British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Lord Elgin, between 1801 and 1805, and are now on display at the British Museum (pictured)
Elgin alleged he was granted permission from the Ottoman Empire to bring the sculptures to the UK. Even though, there was quite a paper trail during this time period, no documents have been discovered to support his claims (Pictured: The Elgin Marbles)
Who owns the Elgin Marbles?
The Elgin Marbles are part of a permanent collection in the museum under The British Museum Act 1963.
However, since Greece established its own independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1832, they have sought to recover artworks previously removed from their country.
The Mediterranean country’s first notable bid to regain the Elgin Marbles began in the early 1980s with Melina Mercouri – who at the time was the Greek minister for culture.
She demanded their return in a meeting with the director of the British Museum, Dr David Wilson in 1983.
The former actress continued to press the British government as well as the famed museum to return the Elgin Marbles until her passing in 1994.
In 2009, Greece further signalled their intent by opening the Acropolis Museum in Athens, in the hope they would one day house the marbles.
Five years later, in 2014 human rights barrister Amal Clooney – the wife of Hollywood actor George Clooney – urged Britain to begin discussions with Greece regarding the return of the artefacts.
Clooney told Sky News: ‘This is an injustice that has persisted for too long, and in a world of intractable conflicts.’
But it was only a year later in 2015, that Greece opted not to take any legal action against Britain regarding the artwork.
The Mediterranean country’s first notable bid to regain the Elgin Marbles began in the early 1980s with Melina Mercouri – who at the time was the Greek minister for culture
In 2014, well-renowned human rights barrister Amal Clooney (pictured) urged Britain to return the marbles branding it an ‘an injustice that has persisted for too long’
The Fagan fragment
Last year, an artefact known as the Palermo Fragment, or Fagan slab, was returned to Athens permanently.
It had been part of the Acropolis’ eastern frieze and was said to be a piece of the foot of a depiction of the Greek goddess of war Artemis.
The Palermo Fragment had also been taken by Lord Elgin, but rather than coming to Britain it was given to the British Consul in Sicily and was later housed at the Salinas Archaeological Museum in Palermo.
This return further fuelled the calls for the Elgin Marbles to be returned.
Last year, an artefact known as the Palermo Fragment, or Fagan slab, was returned to Athens permanently. It had been part of the Acropolis’ eastern frieze and was said to be a piece of the foot of a depiction of the Greek goddess of war Artemis
What has the British Museum said about the Elgin Marbles debate?
In December last year, it emerged that British Museum chairman George Osborne was conducting top-secret negotiations with the Greek prime minister over the transfer of the artefacts.
It was understood that the classified talks between the former Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Greek PM had been ongoing since November 2021.
Osborne has suggested that the marbles could be loaned to Athens in return for objects that have never been seen before in the UK.
In December last year, it emerged that British Museum chairman George Osborne was conducting top-secret negotiations with the Greek prime minister over the transfer of the artefacts
In January 2023, a British Museum spokesperson said: ‘The British Museum has publicly called for a new Parthenon partnership with Greece and we’ll talk to anyone, including the Greek government, about how to take that forward.
‘As the chair of trustees said last month, we operate within the law and we’re not going to dismantle our great collection as it tells a unique story of our common humanity.
‘But we are seeking new positive, long-term partnerships with countries and communities around the world, and that of course includes Greece.’
According to Greek daily newspaper Ta Nea, Mr Osborne and Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis met at a five-star hotel in Knightsbridge, west London, to discuss the sculptures.
Labour sources at the time said that Sir Keir Starmer, whose Holborn and St Pancras constituency is home to the British Museum, would not ‘stand in the way’ of a loan deal.
A Labour spokesperson said: ‘Strong cultural and historical partnerships between countries are important to ensure the British Museum, and other UK cultural institutions, can maintain their world leading status.
‘The next Labour Government will hear the case from the British Museum and its chair on any proposed changes to the Heritage Act as it stands. We’ve no current plans to change it.’
Sir Keir Starmer, whose Holborn and St Pancras constituency is home to the British Museum, will reportedly not ‘stand in the way’ of a possible loan deal. Pictured: Starmer and Greek PM Mr Mitsotakis this week
However, Sir Noel Malcolm said in his report that any supposedly temporary loan would run the significant risk that the marbles would never come back to Britain.
Any permanent return would require a change in the law, which as it stands bans any transfer of objects from the British Museum unless the move is temporary.
Downing Street’s position has remained defiant. A spokesman said this week: ‘These 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.’