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Tuesday, July 27, 1999 Published at 23:27 GMT 00:27 UK


Elgin marbles 'stay in UK'

The British Museum says the marbles are safe from the Athens smog

Britain has denied that it is returning the ancient Elgin Marbles to Greece in a compromise deal aimed at solving a long-standing diplomatic issue.

Speculation had been growing for several days that Culture Secretary Chris Smith was considering opening a satellite branch of the British Museum in Athens to house the 5th Century BC sculptures.

Cultural campaigner Nana Mouskouri: "The marbles belong to the Parthenon"
This would allow Britain to retain ownership of the marbles at the same time as satisfying Greek demands for their return to their historic home.

However, it appears that the British Museum, which currently owns the statues - known in Greece as the Parthenon Marbles - has blocked the plans.

[ image: They form part of a frieze 160m long]
They form part of a frieze 160m long
On Tuesday a spokesman for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport said it was a "serious idea" but "there is no will we have detected from the British Museum to take this forward.

"We have no plans to compel them to do so," he added.

"At the moment they are seen by millions of people every year in superb surroundings. An extremely strong case would need to be made for the debate on whether to return them to Athens to be opened again."

Sale to Britain 'illegitimate'

The marbles consist of 17 figures and are part of a frieze more than 160 metres long, which decorated the Parthenon temple atop the Acropolis (the fortified part of an ancient Greek city) in Athens.

[ image: The statues were created 2,500 years ago]
The statues were created 2,500 years ago
The classical statues were taken from Athens by British diplomat Lord Elgin in 1803 and later sold to the British Museum.

Britain has always maintained that its possession of the marbles is legitimate because Lord Elgin paid for them, but Greece says that the deal was illegitimate because they were bought from the Ottoman empire, which was occupying Athens at the time.

Earlier this year a group of Euro MPs wrote to UK Prime Minister Tony Blair urging him to return the statues to Greece.

The compromise plan was put forward by former British Labour Euro-MP Alf Lomas, who has long lobbied for the return of the statues.

Any return of the marbles to Athens would require an Act of Parliament, and the consent of the British Museum.

No 'fashionable restitution'

Andrew Hamilton, spokesman for the British Museum, said: "No official approach has been made to the museum about this, but if it is it will be rejected.

[ image: Nana Mouskouri says she would have accepted the deal]
Nana Mouskouri says she would have accepted the deal
"Our position is unchanged. The sculptures are the property of the trustees of the British Museum. They will not be returning.

"Restitution has become quite fashionable (but) there has been no discussion about their return," he said.

"The trustees are unable to consider outposts as they are bound by the constitution to stay at our present address."

Tuesday's denials will disappoint campaigners for the return of the marbles, including singer and former Greek MEP Nana Mouskouri.

She told BBC News: "For me, it would be a great idea and I believe many of my fellow countrymen would accept this.

"It is a question of justice. We know it's very hard to solve but my government is open for any negotiations, any dialogue," she said.

"The marbles were born and created in Athens and belong to the Parthenon."

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