Greece's prime minister helped unveil Thursday two looted artifacts recently returned to Athens and suggested it was only a matter of time before his country could recover the most famous Greek treasures being held abroad: the Parthenon Marbles.


Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, far right, and National Archeological Museum director Nikolaos Kaltsas examine the returned gold wreath in Athens Thursday. ((Petros Giannakouris/Associated Press) )

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis joined other dignitaries at the National Archeological Museum for a ceremony unveiling a Macedonian gold wreath dating from the fourth century BC and a marble bust of a young woman dating from the sixth century BC.

Both pieces were returned by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

"It is our urgent priority to reclaim every ancient artifact that was illegally exported to museums and collectors abroad," Karamanlis said.

He added that the repatriation of many Greek treasures in the past few years has helped "evaporate the feeble arguments put forward" by the United Kingdom, which refuses to return the famed marble friezes, sculptures and carvingsalso known asthe Elgin Marbles.

"Demand for uniting the marbles of the Parthenon is gaining in strength and reach," Karamanlis said.

Over the years, Greek and U.K. citizens have launched campaigns calling on the British Museum to return the famed carvings, which depict stories and figures from ancient Greek civilization.

Most recently, thousands of Greek high school students staged a protest in late January, forming a human chain around the Acropolis and demanding the marbles be returned.

Removed at turn of 19th century

At the time of their removal in the late 18th and early 19th century, Greece was under the control of the Ottoman Empire. The seventh Lord Elgin — Great Britain's ambassador to the Ottoman Empire — began removing the artifacts from the Acropolis in 1799.

The move was controversial even then, with British poet Lord Byron among those who criticized Elgin.

The marbles are currently on permanent display at the British Museum in London. Museum officials claim the marbles are safer in London than in Athens, where the Acropolis has suffered deterioration from pollution.


The disputed marbles are currently held at the British Museum in London. ((Photo: CBC/Paul Sampson))

However, Greece is nearing completion of a lavish two-storey museum facility at the foot of the Acropolis designed to showcase the country's vast collection of artifacts. The venue will include empty display areas for the marbles currently held in Britain.

In 2006, Greece accepted the return ofParthenon carvings from Germany's University of Heidelberg and a Swedish woman whose great uncle had removed a section in 1896.

Last year,the Greek government and Getty officials also forged deals for the return of the wreath and bust as well as two other significant artifacts that had been illegally removed from Greece and eventually purchased by the Los Angeles museum.

In recent years, Greece and Italy have aggressively pursued ancient artifacts looted from their shores and now displayed in some of the most high-profile museums and galleries around the world.

The two countries have also taken legal action against former Getty curator Marion True and others for allegedly receiving and dealing in looted artifacts.

With files from the Associated Press