Rishi Sunak has vowed to protect the Parthenon marbles from being returned to Greece, saying they remain a “huge asset” to the UK.
The prime minister stuck by commitments made by his predecessors Liz Truss and Boris Johnson to safeguard the treasures at the British Museum in London.
Despite a campaign to return the marble sculptures to Athens, and talks between officials in the UK and Greece about the idea, it was given short shrift by Sunak as he headed to a major defence and security summit in California.
“The UK has cared for the Elgin marbles for generations,” Sunak said. “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.”
While decisions about the care and management of specific collections are treated as a matter for the British Museum, Downing Street believes a long-term loan would not be in the spirit of the government’s position.
The marbles have been displayed in the British Museum since 1832 after being controversially stripped from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin, a British diplomat.
Senior Greek ministers confirmed last month that there have been secret talks between the museum’s chair, George Osborne, and the Greek government for more than a year.
Greece has long said the marbles should be returned to the country permanently. However, the British Museum’s firm position is that any potential agreement would involve items being returned on loan.
Ministers are said to have no intention of amending the British Museum Act, which prevents the museum from returning any of its collection permanently except in very limited circumstances.