THE British Museum's case for keeping the Elgin Marbles has "evaporated" after other major museums agreed to return ancient artefacts to Greece, the country's prime minister said yesterday.
Costas Karamanlis was speaking at a ceremony in Athens' National Archaeological Museum, where two ancient treasures that had been returned by the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles - a 4th century BC gold wreath and a 6th century BC marble statue of a young woman's torso - were put on display.
"It is our urgent priority to reclaim every ancient artefact that was illegally exported to museums and collectors abroad," Mr Karamanlis said.
He said the wreath's return had helped "evaporate the feeble arguments put forward for the non-return" of the Elgin, or Parthenon, Marbles.
"There is universal demand for returning the Parthenon Marbles which is steadily gaining ground," he said.
The sculptures were removed from the Parthenon and other monuments on the Acropolis 200 years ago by Lord Elgin, Britain's ambassador to the Ottoman Empire which then ruled Greece.
Lord Elgin acquired his collection between 1801 and 1810. The marbles were bought by the British Museum in 1816 and have been a major attraction there ever since. Athens has long sought their return.
Greece is building a new museum, due to be completed later this year, to house artefacts from the Acropolis, and space has been reserved to showcase the Elgin Marbles. Bernard Tschumi, a United States-based architect, designed the 215,000sq ft glass-and-concrete building at the foot of the Acropolis.
Mr Karamanlis said the completion of the new Acropolis Museum, and the return by Sweden and Germany last year of two fragments from the ancient monument, fuelled the argument for the Elgin Marbles' return.
Giorgos Voulgarakis, Greece's culture minister, told state television: "The new Acropolis Museum will be the most modern in the world - in the world!
"After the museum is inaugurated, part of the display where the marbles would be will be left empty with a sign explaining the reason. I wouldn't like to be in the [shoes] of the British Museum."
The pieces put on display yesterday were the last of four antiquities successfully reclaimed by Greece from the Getty Museum, and follows a visit to Athens last month by Michael Brand, the Getty's director.
In December last year Getty, which was embroiled in an international scandal involving their former antiquities curator Marion True, agreed to return the two objects that Greece has long said were the result of illegal excavation and smuggling.
The Getty, one of the world's richest institutions, approved the return of all four items, saying they were, indeed, illegally obtained and then purchased by True, who now faces criminal charges in Italy and Greece. She has denied the charges against her.
A 2,400-year-old, black limestone stele - a grave marker - and a marble votive relief dating from about 490 BC were returned in August as the first instalment of the deal.
The Greek authorities say the golden wreath was illegally excavated in the northern province of Macedonia. Designed as a burial gift, it was probably made shortly after the death of the Macedonian warrior-king Alexander the Great.
"The time when foreign museums and collectors could buy whatever they like in a grey [suspect] market has ended and will never return. There is now a more responsible prevailing attitude against looting national heritage," Mr Voulgarakis said.
"It's not our intention to empty the displays of the world's museums and claim everything Greek. What we want back is everything that was illegally exported."