A Greek magnate has said he will use his personal fortune to establish the Parthenon Project, a scheme which aims to convince British MPs to support a new “Elgin Marbles Act” so the ancient artworks can be returned to their home in Athens.
John Lefas, who is in the plastics industry has hired London PR firm Pagefield to pursue this multi-million-pound campaign of persuasion, which will see MPs flown to Athens to be convinced of Greece’s cause.
Speaking to The Telegraph in Athens, Lefas said: “If we have enough perception, enough support of a certain scale, if we have enough people to believe in it, we have to go through Parliament.”
Lord Vaizey, a former Conservative culture minister, has already taken the trip, and more contacts are understood to have been made in Parliament, where members of the Commons and Lords are being approached.
Lord Vaizey said: “I was in Athens recently with the Parthenon Project to understand more about their vision for a “win win” solution and I fully support their approach. Being pragmatic and forward looking is the only way to resolve such a complicated dispute.
“Seeing the Acropolis Museum and understanding more about the other unique artefacts that could come to London as part of the cultural exchange has really strengthened my view that a deal is within reach.”
Lefas has tabled a possible investment of £10 million to fund the new soft-power programme. It aims to make contacts in Westminster, then fly peers and MPs to Greece to be wined, dined, and persuaded to the cause with a crash course in Lord Elgin’s theft of the marbles, and the merits displaying ancient Athenian artworks in Athens itself.
Current legislation prevents the sculptures leaving the British Museum, creating a legal impasse which has frustrated Greece’s many calls for their repatriation.
Lefas hopes that either a government or private members’ bill could be introduced, and that with enough MPs persuaded of the Greek cause, a bill might be voted through amending legislation which currently prevents the repatriation of the Marbles.
“We have a lot of pull in the UK,” Mr Lefas said. “A lot of pull has to transform into political energy. You have to get enough ‘umph’ to make things happen. I hope it’s going to happen fast.”
The plan is understood to have the blessing - but not the direct backing - of Greek ministers.
Thessaloniki-born Lefas, 71, founded multi-national plastics producer Ingenia Polymers - which has an annual revenue of around $100 million - and has spent much of his life in Canada, the US, and the UK.
The Anglophile businessman and chemical engineer began researching the repatriation of the Elgin Marbles as a way to provide a morale boost for his country after the 2009 financial crisis.
The British Museum Act 1963 prevents ownership of the 2,500-year-old sculptures, or any other artefacts, being transferred from the Museum to another party. Any loan deal for the artworks as this would entail accepting the UK’s legal claim to the Marbles which Greek ministers have always maintained were stolen by Lord Elgin.
This has created a stalemate in the campaign for their return, and Greek government sources have told The Telegraph that removing the impasse of UK legislation by repealing or altering the British Museum Act is the only way the Elgin Marbles can be repatriated.
The UK government has maintained that the Elgin Marbles are a matter for the British Museum’s trustees, while the British Museum insists it is bound by law to retain any
artefacts in its collection.
While government intervention would be needed to change this, the Department for Digital Culture Media and Sport has consistently said that such a legislative change is not being considered - although Mr Lefas hopes his unusual foray politics could prove fruitful.
Should the Marbles be returned, Greece is willing to loan priceless artefacts from its National Archaeological Museum to fill the space vacated.
Mr Lefas said: “I’m like the match-maker in The Fiddler on the Roof, the Jewish lady saying ‘this boy is good, this girl is good’. I’ve become a match-maker. I love Greece, and I love Britain, and I wish the best for them both. I want to bring them together with a win-win proposition.”
While he has friends in politics, his only past political intervention was joining the Athens Polytechnic uprising against the Papadopoulos regime in 1973, as a self-described bearded and pipe-smoking chemical engineering student.
His foray into diplomacy is based on the Parthenon’s status as a “symbol of the psyche of Greece”.
Missing from this national symbol, he explained, is the Elgin Marbles.
Statues from the Parthenon’s east and west pediments, many of its metopes (carved plaques), and a vast section of the frieze which circled the temple were shipped to Britain by Lord Elgin in the early 19th-century while Greece was under Ottoman rule.
Greece insists - despite the British Museum’s counter-claims - that they were stolen, and the alleged theft of the Parthenon sculptures is taught to Greek children from an early age.
Overturning the UK law would end a campaign which began with the first king of independent Greece, Otto, in 1836, when the new state, seeking to secure its national identity with objects from its illustrious ancient past, made a formal request for their return.
Britain played no small part in helping Greece become independent - including crushing the Ottoman fleet at Navarino in 1827 - and Mr Lefas believes the long friendship between the two counties, marred by the missing marbles, would be made stronger by their return.
“There is a simple sense of justice,” he said of Elgin’s actions. If I come to your house and there’s a Ming Dynasty vase, and I drop it and break it, I’m not going to take two pieces and go home, I’m going to try and put it together for you.
“It would improve the sentiments between Britain and Greece: Navarino, liberation, the First World War, the Second World War, Gallipoli, Crete. There are so many ties, you cannot let this small thing marr this relationship.”