In a statement sent to The Telegraph, Mr Samaras said that the move by the British Museum was an "affront" to the Greek people.
By Nick Squires, in Rome and Victoria Ward (source: Telegraph )
|The Elgin Marbles at the British Museum|
Antonis Samaras, the Greek prime minister, expressed anger over the museum’s loaning of a headless marble statue of a river god to the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg until Jan 18, for an exhibition that starts on Saturday.
Athens has called for decades for the return of the Elgin Marbles, saying they were taken to London when Greece was ruled by the Ottoman Empire and that the Greeks had no say in the matter.
The loan is the first time in 200 years that any of the sculptures, also known as the Parthenon Marbles, have left Britain.
In a statement sent to The Telegraph, Mr Samaras said that the move by the British Museum was an "affront" to the Greek people:
"The decision by the British Museum to give out on loan one of the Parthenon sculptures for exhibit in St Petersburg is an affront to the Greek people.He said the Parthenon and its sculptures had been “looted” by Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the early 19th century.
"The British argument held until recently - that the Parthenon Marbles cannot be moved - is no longer valid; just as the existence of the new Acropolis Museum invalidated the other British argument that there was no appropriate space for exhibiting the sculptures.
"We Greeks are one with our history and civilization, which cannot be broken up, loaned out, or conceded."
The chairman of the Marbles Reunited campaign, Liberal Democrat MP Andrew George, criticised the British Museum for snubbing the Greek request for the return of the sculptures and lending them instead "to a country which has backed rebels who kill British citizens."
He said the sculptures had been “purloined in a dodgy deal by Lord Elgin during a period when Greece was occupied by the Ottomans.
British Museum defend Marbles decision
“I sense that the British Museum's grip on the sculptures is weakening. If Britain did the decent and gracious thing and returned the sculptures, the Greeks have made clear that they would willingly loan many other Greek artefacts and great works to Britain so that they could be 'shared and enjoyed by as many people...as possible'."
The loan was also described as provocative by the head of another UK-based association campaigning for the marbles to be given back to Greece.
“I’m incensed by this,” said Eddie O’Hara, the chairman of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, which has campaigned for their restitution for 30 years. “It’s at best insensitive and at worst, frankly provocative.”
The piece on loan is a reclining male figure of the river god Ilissos, taken from the west pediment of the Parthenon.
Greece has enlisted the help of a British legal team, led by Geoffrey Robertson QC and Amal Clooney, the new wife of George Clooney, to press its claim to the sculptures more forcefully.
They visited Athens in October, touring the Acropolis Museum and holding talks with the Greek government about initiating a possible legal fight.
“The British Museum says the loan to St Petersburg will help un-chill relations with Russia, but at the same time they are chilling relations with Athens,” Mr O’Hara, a former Labour MP for Knowsley South in Merseyside, told The Telegraph.
“I’m sure there are plenty of Russian artefacts in the British Museum that they could have leant to St Petersburg.”
“The timing is very provocative. Last year Unesco asked the British government and the British Museum to submit the issue to mediation. They received no response. Last month Unesco asked them once again to respond. Again, there has been no response. Instead the British Museum has decided to loan one of the sculptures to the Russians. It’s provocative and downright rude.”
The headless marble statue is one of a number of similar items that once decorated the Parthenon, the temple which crowns the Acropolis, the rugged, sheer-sided redoubt that looms over Athens.
The British Museum said it would be difficult to make a similar loan to the Acropolis Museum because the Greeks have always indicated that they would not be prepared to give the artefacts back.
“The Greek government has always refused to borrow, to date, but the trustees' position is very clear that they will consider any request from anyone who is prepared to return the object,” Neil MacGregor, the director of the museum, told the Today programme on Radio 4.
The campaign to have the marbles given back to the Greeks would continue, said Mr O’Hara. “The artistic integrity of the Parthenon is compromised under the current situation,” he said.
“They should be seen in their proper setting.”