A deal could be struck between the UK and Greece to share the Parthenon Marbles, potentially ending a decades-long fight over their future, the chairman of the British Museum has said.
George Osborne, who is also a former Conservative government minister, said he believed there was a “deal to be done” to share the priceless artworks.
The 2,500-year-old friezes were taken from Athens in the 19th century by nobleman Thomas Bruce, known as Lord Elgin, and are often called the Elgin Marbles in Britain.
In the past year, France has returned antiquities to Benin and Italy to Greece, but the Parthenon Marbles, now housed in the British Museum, are a higher-profile case and raise passions in both countries.
“In the British Museum, they tell a story about civilisation compared to all the other civilisations — China, India, other parts of the Mediterranean,” Mr Osborne said.
But in Greece, he said, they only tell the story of Greek civilisation.
“I think there is a deal to be done where we can tell both stories, in Athens and in London, if we both approach this without a load of preconditions, without a load of red lines,” Mr Osborne added.
“I think sensible people can arrange something that makes the most of the Parthenon Marbles, but if either side says there's no give at all, then there won't be a deal.”
The Parthenon was built in the 5th century BC on the Acropolis to honour Athena, the patron goddess of Athens.
In the early 1800s, workmen took friezes from the monument on the orders of Lord Elgin, Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. He sold the marbles to the British government, which in 1817 passed them on to the British Museum, where they remain one of the most prized exhibits.
Athens insists the sculptures were stolen.
“I don't want to speak for all the trustees of the British Museum — we'd have to properly look at everything,” Mr Osborne said.
“Sensible people should come up with something so you can see them in their splendour in Athens and you can see them alongside the splendours of other civilisations in London.”
In an interview last year, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson ruled out the return of the marbles, saying they were legally acquired by Britain and had been legally owned by the British Museum's trustees since their acquisition.