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Greece protests Elgin Marbles sculpture loan to Russia

Greece on Friday blasted as “provocative” an unprecedented decision by the British Museum to loan one of the Elgin Marbles — Greek sculptures also known as the Parthenon Marbles that Athens has long demanded back — to a top Russian museum.

“The British Museum’s decision constitutes a provocation to the Greek people,” Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said in a statement.

The British Museum said it had loaned one of the statues — taken from Greece’s famed Parthenon by British diplomat Lord Elgin in 1803 — to Russia’s State Hermitage Museum.

It is the first time one of the sculptures has left Britain. Samaras said this ran contrary to the British Museum’s prior insistence that the Marbles should not be moved.

The sculpture of the Greek river god Ilissos, a reclining male figure, will be displayed in the Saint Petersburg museum from Saturday until January 18 to celebrate the Russian museum’s 250th anniversary.

The chairman of the British Musem’s trustees, Richard Lambert, said it was the institution’s “duty” to allow people “in as many countries as possible to share in their common inheritance”.

“The trustees are delighted that this beautiful object will be enjoyed by the people of Russia,” he said.

For three decades Greece has demanded the return of the sculptures, which decorated the Acropolis of Athens for over 2,000 years before their removal.

Elgin said he had permission to take the works from the Ottoman Empire which ruled Greece at the time. But modern-day Athens regards their removal as theft.

As culture minister a decade ago, Samaras inaugurated the Acropolis Museum which holds the main collection of friezes from the Parthenon, a Classical Greek temple to the goddess Athena.

Greece’s campaign has the support of lawyer Amal Alamuddin Clooney, who is married to the actor George Clooney, and the government last month began polling passengers at Athens airport on whether the marbles should be returned.

But Greece has said it will await the outcome of possible talks between UNESCO and Britain on the dispute, after the UN’s cultural agency offered to act as a mediator.