On 14 December 2023 the House of Lords will debate the following motion tabled by Lord Lexden (Conservative):

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of proposals to loan the Elgin Marbles to Greece.

1. What are the Elgin Marbles?

The Elgin Marbles refers to a collection of sculptures held in the British Museum originating from the Parthenon in Athens and dating from the 5th century BC. The Elgin Marbles are also referred to as the Parthenon sculptures or the Parthenon Marbles. The Parthenon sculptures is the term used by the British Museum.[1]

The museum provides the following summary of the sculptures and their origin:

The Parthenon sculptures are a collection of different types of marble architectural decoration from the temple of Athena (the Parthenon) on the Acropolis in Athens. Made between 447 BC and 432 BC they consist of: a frieze which shows the procession of the Panathenaic festival (the commemoration of the birthday of the goddess Athena); a series of metopes (sculpted relief panels) depicting the battle between Centaurs and Lapiths at the marriage-feast of Peirithoos; and figures of the gods and legendary heroes from the temple’s pediments. The British Museum houses 15 metopes, 17 pedimental figures and 247ft (75m) of the original frieze.[2]

Before Greek independence in 1832 and the establishment of the modern Greek state, Athens was part of the Ottoman Empire. The sculptures were brought to the UK from Athens in the early 19th century by Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.[3] Lord Elgin then petitioned Parliament to establish a committee to consider the sale of these sculptures to the British Museum.[4]. Following an inquiry by a select committee into the purchase of the sculptures, Parliament authorised the sale and passed an act of Parliament vesting the sculptures to the trustees of the British Museum.[5]

2. What is the dispute between the Greek government and the British Museum?

The Greek government’s position is that the Parthenon sculptures were obtained illegally by Lord Elgin, that they belong to Greece and that they should be returned to Athens.[6] The first formal request by the Greek government for their return was made in 1983 and was rejected in 1984.[7] The Acropolis Museum in Athens has also called on the British Museum to return the sculptures.[8] The Acropolis Museum currently holds those sculptures from the Parthenon which remained in Athens and those which have subsequently been given to the museum, including ones previously held by the Vatican Museum.[9] The Acropolis Museum displays plaster casts of the sculptures held by the British Museum.

The position of the British Museum is that the sculptures were legally obtained by Lord Elgin with the permission of the Ottoman authorities.[10] The British Museum states the House of Commons committee in 1816 had found Lord Elgin had legally acquired the sculptures and the museum therefore became the legal owner of the sculptures when they were vested with the museum.[11]

3. Is the British Museum able to loan items?

Under the British Museum Act 1963, the British Museum is independent from the government and run by a board of trustees. However, the 1963 act does prevent the British Museum from permanently disposing of items from its collection. Exceptions to this include the disposal of more recent items and items which are duplicates.

The British Museum is able to loan items to other museums under the 1963 act. The procedure for doing so is set out in its loans policy document.[12] For example, in 2014 the British Museum loaned a statue of the river god Ilissos originating from the Parthenon to the Hermitage museum in St Petersburg.[13] The loan of this item was criticised by the Greek government. The British Museum has also loaned items to the Acropolis Museum in Athens, including the Meidias hydria, an ancient Greek water jug dating from around 420 BC.[14]

4. What recent discussions have there been about a loan of the sculptures?

In November 2021, the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, visited London and met then Prime Minister Boris Johnson.[15] It was subsequently reported that during this visit Mr Mitsotakis also met the chair of the British Museum’s board of trustees, the former chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne.[16] According to a report of this meeting published by the Financial Times in February 2023, Mr Mitsotakis and Mr Osborne discussed the possibility of a temporary loan of items from the British Museum’s collection in exchange for items currently held in Greek museums.[17] The Financial Times reported the proposal under discussion as follows:

Osborne’s proposal employs a number of strategies to bridge the gap between the sides, including the cultural version of a hostage swap. According to people briefed on the plan, it would see a series of loan deals involving the marbles, which would gradually build up trust. Greece would not renounce its claim—it would be a big problem for Mitsotakis to accept a “loan” of what he regards as Greek property—but the British Museum would agree to ship to Athens potentially one-third or more of the marbles for a set time period, such as 10 years.[18]

Speaking to LBC in June 2022, Mr Osborne said there was a “deal to be done” with Greece whereby the Parthenon sculptures held by the British Museum could be temporarily displayed in the Acropolis Museum.[19]

The British Museum has subsequently said it was seeking to establish a long-term partnership with Greece concerning the Parthenon sculptures and that discussions concerning this partnership were ongoing.[20] However, the British Museum states it has never been asked for a loan of the Parthenon sculptures by Greece.[21] It has also stated that any future loan request would only be considered if Greece agreed to their eventual return.[22]

The Greek government has said it will not agree to a loan as this would acknowledge the British Museum’s ownership of the sculptures.[23] For example, in January 2023, the Greek Ministry of Culture told the Greek newspaper Kathimerini it did not recognise the British Museum’s ownership of the sculpture, which it said were the “product of theft”.[24] The Greek government has said the loan of the Meidias hydria and other items was only possible because their ownership was not disputed and this arrangement could not apply to the Parthenon sculptures.[25]

5. What is the UK government’s position?

In 2021, the British government rejected requests from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to reconsider its position on returning the sculptures to Greece.[26] In January 2023, responding to reports that the British Museum and the Greek government were discussing the possibility of an arrangement to loan the Parthenon sculptures, then Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Michelle Donelan said the sculptures “belonged here in the UK” and should not be permanently sent to Greece.[27] However, she also said she had had discussions with Mr Osborne and she understood he was not proposing for the sculptures to be permanently rehoused in Greece. Responding to Ms Donelan’s comments, the former culture secretary, Lord Vaizey of Didcot (Conservative), said they should be interpreted as leaving open the possibility of negotiations between the Greek government and the British Museum in the future.[28]

In January 2023, Dr Matthew Offord (Conservative MP for Hendon) tabled a written question asking the government to publish details of any correspondence between the then Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the British Museum on the Parthenon sculptures over the previous two years. Parliamentary under secretary of state at DCMS, Stuart Andrew, responded:

The Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum are legally owned by the trustees of the British Museum, which is operationally independent of government. Decisions relating to the care and management of the museum’s collections are a matter for the trustees of the British Museum.

The British Museum is prohibited by law from deaccessioning items from its collection, and we have no plans to change the law.

The only discussions the department has had on the matter of the Parthenon sculptures occur within the formal meetings of the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property at UNESCO—the last one being attended by government officials in May 2022.[29]

During a visit to the US in March 2023, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the Parthenon sculptures should remain in the British Museum.[30] He said:

The UK has cared for the Elgin Marbles for generations. Our galleries and museums are funded by taxpayers because they are a huge asset to this country […] We share their treasures with the world, and the world comes to the UK to see them. The collection of the British Museum is protected by law, and we have no plans to change it.

Prime Minister Mitsotakis visited the UK in November 2023. During an interview with the BBC at the start of this visit, Mr Mitsotakis described the Parthenon sculptures being held in the British Museum as “like cutting Mona Lisa in half”.[31] Following this interview, it was reported that a planned meeting between Mr Sunak and Mr Mitsotakis had been cancelled.[32] A proposed alternative meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden was rejected by the Greek government.[33] The BBC reported that Mr Sunak’s official spokesperson had said the meeting was cancelled because Mr Mitsotakis’s comments had broken an agreement with the British government that he should not use his visit as a “public platform” to call for the return of the sculptures to Athens.[34] The Greek government has denied it gave such an assurance.[35]

6. What is the Labour Party’s position?

Leader of the Opposition Keir Starmer and other members of the shadow cabinet met Mr Mitsotakis during his visit to the UK on 27 November 2023.[36] The Financial Times reported prior to this meeting that the Opposition was open to a loan agreement if this could be reached between the British Museum and Greek government.[37] However, the Labour Party said it did not intend to amend the British Museum Act 1963.

7. Read more

Cover image by ‘Dominic’s pics’ on Wikimedia Commons.


  1. British Museum, ‘The Parthenon sculptures’, accessed 6 December 2023. Return to text
  2. As above. Return to text
  3. As above. Return to text
  4. HC Hansard, 15 June 1815, cols 828–30. Return to text
  5. House of Commons Committee on the Earl of Elgin’s Collection of Sculptured Marbles etc., Report, 25 March 1816; and Statutes Project, ‘1816: 56 George 3 c 99: The Elgin Marbles Act’, 1 July 1816. Return to text
  6. Balkan Insight, ‘British Museum loan cannot apply to Parthenon Marbles, Greece says’, 6 December 2023. Return to text
  7. British Museum, ‘The Parthenon sculptures: The trustees’ statement’, accessed 6 December 2023. Return to text
  8. Acropolis Museum, ‘Permanent reunification of Parthenon fragments from the Vatican Museums to the Acropolis Museum’, 24 March 2023. Return to text
  9. As above. Return to text
  10. British Museum, ‘The Parthenon sculptures: The trustees’ statement’, accessed 6 December 2023. Return to text
  11. As above. Return to text
  12. British Museum, ‘Loans policy’, 7 November 2019. Return to text
  13. Museums Association, ‘British Museum loans Parthenon Marbles to Hermitage Museum’, 5 December 2014. Return to text
  14. British Museum, ‘History’s most famous pot: The Meidias hydria’, 24 November 2023. Return to text
  15. Prime Minister’s Office, ‘PM meeting with PM Mitsotakis of Greece: 16 November 2021’, 16 November 2021. Return to text
  16. George Parker et al, ‘Inside the secret meetings that could seal the fate of the Parthenon Marbles’, Financial Times (£), 10 February 2023. Return to text
  17. As above. Return to text
  18. As above. Return to text
  19. LBC, ‘Britain and Greece could strike “deal” to share Elgin Marbles, George Osborne tells LBC’, 15 June 2022. Return to text
  20. British Museum, ‘Parthenon press statement’, 3 December 2022 and ‘The Parthenon sculptures’, accessed 6 December 2023. Return to text
  21. British Museum, ‘The Parthenon sculptures: The trustees’ statement’, accessed 6 December 2023. Return to text
  22. As above. Return to text
  23. Conversation, ‘Debate: Sorry, British Museum, a loan of the Parthenon Marbles is not a repatriation’, 15 February 2023. Return to text
  24. ARTnews, ‘Greece rejects possibility of Parthenon Marbles ‘loan’ in new statement’, 6 January 2023. Return to text
  25. Balkan Insight, ‘British Museum loan cannot apply to Parthenon Marbles, Greece says’, 6 December 2023. Return to text
  26. Artforum, ‘UK government rejects UNESCO plea to readdress ownership of Parthenon Marbles’, 7 October 2021. Return to text
  27. BBC News, ‘Parthenon sculptures belong in UK, says Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan’, 11 January 2023. Return to text
  28. As above. Return to text
  29. House of Commons, ‘Written question: Parthenon sculptures (126611)’, 26 January 2023. Return to text
  30. Reuters, ‘UK PM Sunak rules out law change for return of Parthenon Marbles’, 13 March 2023. Return to text
  31. BBC News, ‘Elgin Marbles in UK “like cutting Mona Lisa in half”’, 26 November 2023. Return to text
  32. George Parker et al, ‘UK claims Greek prime minister broke pact on discussion of Elgin Marbles’, Financial Times (£), 28 November 2023. Return to text
  33. As above. Return to text
  34. BBC News, ‘Greece denies promising not to raise Parthenon sculptures on UK visit’, 28 November 2023. Return to text
  35. As above. Return to text
  36. ITV News, ‘Starmer, Lammy and Cooper meet Greek PM’, 27 November 2023. Return to text
  37. George Parker and Eleni Varvitsioti, ‘Keir Starmer open to a deal on Elgin Marbles’, Financial Times (£), 24 November 2023. Return to text