Ratcheting up fresh pressure, Greece has blasted the British Museum for exhibiting the Parthenon marbles, calling the collection "stolen" treasures and demanding the masterpieces be returned to Athens.
The call comes as Greece celebrates the 11th anniversary of the New Acropolis Museum, a four-story, state of the art edifice built to house the ancient treasures and weaken Britain's claim that it is best able to look after the 2,500-year-old masterpieces.
“Since September 2003 when construction work for the Acropolis Museum began, Greece has systematically demanded the return of the sculptures on display in the British Museum because they are the product of theft,” the country’s culture minister Lina Mendoni said.
“The current Greek government – like any Greek government – is not going to stop claiming the stolen sculptures which the British Museum, contrary to any moral principle, continues to hold illegally,” she told the Athens daily Ta Nea.
Depicting figures of ancient Greek mythology, the 75-meter frieze and its 17 statues were sawed off the Parthenon temple and shipped to London by Lord Elgin in the early 19th century, during his tenure as Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.
Bankrupted by the venture, the British aristocrat sold them to the British Museum in 1816, where they became a major attraction and began one of the world’s longest running cultural disputes.
Mendoni said “It is sad that one of the world’s largest and most important museums is still governed by outdated, colonialist views.”
While successive governments in Britain have opposed calls for the return of the sculptures to Greece, pressure has mounted in recent years with a bandwagon of celebrities and politicians joining the repatriation campaign.
Greece’s center-right government is also stepping up efforts to win back the treasures as the country gears up for its bicentennial independence anniversary next year.
While 50 meters of the 115-block Parthenon frieze is displayed in Athens, eight other museums scattered across Europe house fragments of it, including the Louvre and the British Museum.
Last year, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis secured a key agreement from French President Macron to allow the Louvre to lend a small fragment of the Parthenon in light of those celebrations.
Macron has become the first Western leader to initiate a comprehensive review of colonial looting, repatriating significant collections to Africa - a move traditionally resisted by leading museums in the West, including the British Museum.
A similar loan request was made to the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson but it was quickly knocked down by the British Museum, saying any swap would require Athens to relinquish ownership claims to the prized treasures -- a request Greece has emphatically refused.
"Without the supreme symbol of culture, the Parthenon, Western Civilization cannot exist, and this symbol deserves to be reunited with its expatriate sculptures," Mendoni told a local broadcaster in May.
Government officials have refused to clarify whether Athens has followed up with any alternative proposal to the British Museum. Nor have they said whether Greece would resort to legal action against Britain in a bid to win back the marbles.
"In law, a thief is not allowed to keep his or her ill-gotten gains, no matter how long ago they were taken, or how much he or she may have improved them," said Geoffrey Robertson, a leading human rights attorney whom the government in Athens recruited in 2014 to consider legal action.
"In the past, a lot of cultural property was wrongfully extracted from places that are now independent states. They want the loot sent back to where it was created and to the people for whom it has most meaning."
In its pamphlets, the British Museum argues that its free-of-charge entrance attracts millions of visitors every year from around the work, making the ancient Greek masterpieces available to the public within the context of a wide swath of human civilization -- a claim Greece insists is now defunct with its $200 million mammoth museum.
An austere building wedged within the chaotic sprawl of a crowded old neighborhood, the new Acropolis museum was initially scheduled to open in time for the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics.
But legal fights over the expropriation of some 25 buildings, as well as archaeological findings unearthed at the site, derailed the project by more than 5 years.