The Parthenon marbles are on display at the British Museum, which has consistently refused to return them to Greece. ((Paul Sampson/CBC))

Greece has said it will not accept the offer of a short-term loan of the Parthenon marbles because doing so would acknowledge the fifth-century B.C. antiquities as the legitimate property of the British Museum.

In a statement Thursday, Greek Culture Minister Antonis Samaris said his government would not take up the British offer, which would have had the marbles displayed at the opening of the new Acropolis Museum in Athens.

"Accepting it would legalize the snatching of the marbles and the monument’s carving up 207 years ago," he said.

Samaris was responding to comments by British Museum spokeswoman Hannah Boulton on Greek Skai Radio on Wednesday. She said that the London museum would consider lending the marbles to Greece for three months for the opening of the new museum.

Controversial history

The British Museum’s ownership of the Parthenon marbles has long been a subject of controversy.

In 1799, while Greece was under Ottoman rule, British Ambassador Lord Elgin began removing artifacts from the Acropolis. He sold 75 metres of the original 160 metres of the frieze that ran around the Parthenon’s inner core to the British Museum for £35,000 ($72,000 Cdn).

Over the years, campaigns have been launched calling for the reunification of the frieze — which depicts gods, giants and centaurs from Greek mythology — in Greece. The British Museum has claimed the works are safer in London than in Athens, where the Acropolis has suffered deterioration from pollution.

The Acropolis Museum, which stands just 400 metres from the Parthenon, opens on June 20. Replicas of the artworks in London will be displayed alongside those that have been left in Greece.

In his statement, Samaris said Greece would be willing to loan other antiquities to the British Museum "to fill the gap when the marbles are returned to the country where they belong."

If the British Museum returned the Parthenon marbles to Greece, other countries would likely demand the return of their art treasures. Nigeria, for one, has been calling for the return of the Benin bronzes, which were removed by Britain in 1897.