Visitors look at the sculpture of the Greek river god Ilissos at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. The statue will be displayed until January 18. Photo: AFP

British Museum ignites row by loaning Elgin Marbles piece to Russia

Greek government blasts move by British Museum to lend piece of collection as an 'affront'


The British Museum has sparked a row across Europe after it allowed a piece of the disputed Elgin Marbles collection to go on show at Russia's Hermitage Museum with the Greek government condemning the loan as "an affront to the Greek people".

One of the British Museum's much-disputed Parthenon Marbles was unveiled on Friday after being sent in secret to Russia - a surprise move that outraged Greece, which has long demanded the return of the artefacts.

The loan of the piece, an elegant depiction of the Greek river god Ilissos, was the first time in two centuries that one of the contested sculpture has left Britain - and raised questions of timing amid growing tension between Russia and the West over Ukraine and other disputes.

"Greeks identify with our history and culture! Which cannot be sliced up, loaned or given away!" Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras fumed in a sharply worded statement punctuated with exclamation points. He described the British Museum's move as a provocation.

On Sunday, Turkey, historically a rival of Greece, announced support for Greece's fight to get the Marbles back.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said: "The return of works of a nation's cultural heritage is very important."

The museum announced the loan only after the sculpture - a headless Ilissos reclining amid exquisitely carved drapery evoking river water - had been spirited to Russia's Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. It be on display from yesterday until January 18 as part of a major exhibition to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the museum, which is Russia's most renowned.

The sculptures are at the heart of one of the world's most famous cultural heritage disputes. The marbles graced the Parthenon temple on the Acropolis for more than 2,000 years, until they were removed at the beginning of the 19th century by Scottish nobleman Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, when it was fashionable for the aristocracy to collect ancient art.

Greece contends they were looted illegally while the country was under Turkish occupation. The British Museum has long rejected their return, arguing that the pieces, better known as the Elgin Marbles, can be seen by a global audience, free of charge.

In announcing the loan, the museum's trustees described the sculpture as a "stone ambassador of the Greek golden age", whose loan should continue despite tensions between Britain and Russia. "It is precisely because relations between the countries are difficult that this kind of loan is so important," British Museum director Neil MacGregor told the BBC. "As we know, relations between Britain and Russia have been bumpy over the last couple of years. But the Hermitage has lent very generously."

The trip to the Hermitage marks the first time any of the sculptures have left the museum since being presented to its trustees by parliament in 1816, with the exception of their evacuation for safekeeping in wartime.

The British Museum has said it would consider any borrowing request with the precondition "that the borrowing institution can guarantee its safe return" — a condition Greece is unlikely to agree to.

Efforts to return the works were given a boost by lawyer Amal Clooney, wife of actor George Clooney, who stepped in to back the Greek cause.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Secret loan of Elgin Marbles to Russia ignites outrage