Italy’s artefact return to Athens adds pressure on UK to give back Elgin Marbles

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The return of a key fragment of the Parthenon to Athens from Sicily shows “momentum is building” toward the eventual repatriation of the Elgin Marbles, the Greek Prime Minister has said.

Speaking to The Daily Telegraph, Kyriakos Mitsotakis said Greece is “putting together the jigsaw” and the deal struck with an Italian museum could form the blueprint for an arrangement with Britain.

On Monday the Sicilian fragment – a robed lower leg and bare foot of a goddess – will be unveiled in its new home at the Acropolis Museum in the Greek capital, taking its place in a full-sized recreation of the upper part of the Parthenon which becomes more complete with every fragment that is returned.

About half of the sculptures are in the British Museum, where they have been since they were removed by Lord Elgin, the then ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, at the start of the 19th century. Smaller pieces are scattered around several European museums including the Louvre in Paris.

‘The debate has really struck a chord’

In November Mr Mitsotakis made a fresh bid for the return of the Elgin Marbles when he visited Downing Street, and said an interview with the Telegraph that coincided with the visit had helped create “a big wave of international support” for his cause.

He said on Friday: “The whole debate has really struck a chord. I do sense there is a momentum building and of course the elephant in the room is the discussion we will have to have with the British Museum.

“There are similarities between what is happening now and what could potentially happen with the British Museum.”

Under the agreement reached with the Antonino Salinas archaeological museum in Palermo, the piece – which depicts either Artemis or Peitho – will be loaned to Athens for four years in return for the loan of two Greek artefacts. The deal can be renewed for a further four years, after which Sicily intends to make the return permanent subject to approval by Italy’s culture ministry.

The piece was originally acquired by Robert Fagan, the former British consul to Sicily, and was bought by Palermo University from his widow in 1820.

‘It has been in Sicily for centuries’

Mr Mitsotakis said: “It’s an important step in terms of putting together the jigsaw. It involves many museums, not just the British Museum.

“This is an important fragment because it’s quite big, it’s part of the frieze that portrays the gods.

“It has been in Sicily for almost two centuries and what’s important is the arrangement, not as a loan but as a deposit for eight years with the prospect of remaining indefinitely.”

Boris Johnson has said the future of the Elgin Marbles is a matter for the British Museum, while the museum says it is prevented by an Act of Parliament from returning them.

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