Athens has made repeated demands for the transfer of 2,500-year-old treasures which were taken by British diplomat Lord Elgin from the Parthenon temple in the early 19th century when Greece was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. But the British Museum has refused to return the sculptures, roughly half of a 525ft frieze that adorned the 5th century BC monument, saying they were acquired by Lord Elgin under a legal contract with the Ottoman Empire and are part of everyone’s “shared heritage”.
Mr Johnson told Greek daily newspaper Ta Nea newspaper the British Museum was the legitimate owner of the marbles.
The Prime Minister, who described himself as “a keen scholar of Greek history” in the Ta Nea interview, said he understood the feelings of many Greeks about the issue but said Britain had a “firm and long-standing” position about the sculptures.
He told the paper: “I understand the strong feelings of the Greek people – and indeed Prime Minister Mitsotakis – on the issue.
“But the UK Government has a firm longstanding position on the sculptures which is that they were legally acquired by Lord Elgin under the appropriate laws of the time and have been legally owned by the British Museum’s Trustees since their acquisition.”
Greece’s conservative government has stepped up pressure for a return of the marbles since it took power in 2019, a campaign it has said would be intensified by Britain’s departure from the European Union.
Culture Minister Lina Mendoni last year branded Elgin a “serial thief” who used illegal tactics to take the marbles.
In 2019, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said he would be willing to lend important artefacts to London in return for putting the marbles on display in Athens in 2021, when Greece marks the 200th anniversary of the start of its War of Independence.
READ MORE: Archaeologists stunned by ‘absolutely incredible’ shipwreck
Highlighting the importance of the issue for his centre-right government, Mr Mitsotakis said: “I don’t think Britain should be fighting a losing battle.
“Eventually this is going to be a losing battle.
“At the end of the day there is going to be mounting pressure on this issue.”
An Express.co.uk poll carried out last September found only a third of readers thought the UK should send the sculptures back to Athens.
One reader said: “If the Elgin Marbles are returned then everything in every museum in the world has to be returned to its country of origin – all Egyptian mummies to Egypt, all Greek antiquities to Greece etc.
“That would decimate most museums around the world but it is the only way for things to be fair … either all or none.”
Another said: “The Elgin Marbles are British owned, purchased by the Crown from Lord Elgin in 1816 and presented by parliament to the British Museum. End of.”