Rishi Sunak insisted there are “no plans” to hand back the Elgin Marbles to Greece amid calls for them to be swapped with precious artefacts.
The influential Parthenon Project thinks the marbles should be returned to Athens in exchange for artefacts that have never left Greece.
But Mr Sunak said the collection of the British Museum, also known as the Parthenon Sculptures, is protected by law.
Asked about their fate during a visit to the US, the PM told reporters: “The UK has cared for the Elgin Marbles for generations.
“Our galleries and museums are funded by taxpayers because they are a huge asset to this country. We share their treasures with the world, and the world comes to the UK to see them. The collection of the British Museum is protected by law, and we have no plans to change it.”
The fate of the marbles has been the subject of one of the world’s bitterest and longest-running cultural disputes.
Boris Johnson hit out at calls to hand them back during a speech last week.
He said returning the sculptures would leave a “huge gap” in the British Museum’s ability to explain world history.
British Museum chairman George Osborne, former Chancellor and political rival of Mr Johnson, has said that he is exploring ways for the 2,500-year-old Elgin Marbles to be displayed in Greece.
The marble friezes were removed from the Parthenon from 1801 to 1812 under the orders of the 7th Earl of Elgin, who was Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.
Elgin said that he had permission of the occupying authorities in Greece to remove them, and sold them to the British government in 1816 for £35,000 (about £2.7 million today).
Ownership of more than 75 metres of Parthenon frieze, as well as 17 pedimental figures, was soon transferred to the trustees of the museum, and has been housed there ever since. They are regarded as one of the most important parts of the British Museum’s collection.
The Parthenon Project is backed by Stephen Fry, and two former culture ministers, Lord Vaizey and Ben Bradshaw.
It is funded by the Greek plastics magnate John Lefas.
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