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Elgin Marble lent by Britain to Russia's Hermitage Museum

For first time in 200 years, the British Museum has allowed one of the Parthenon Marbles leave to Britain. It is being lent to Russia's Hermitage Museum. Greece has long maintained that the ancient sculptures were unlawfully taken by Lord Elgin in the 19th century.

Loan marks 1st time British Museum has allowed ancient sculpture out of country

The British Museum has loaned the headless sculpture of the river god Ilissos, one of the Elgin Marbles, to the Hermitage Museum in Russia. ( AP Photo/British Museum)

The British Museum has loaned one of the Parthenon Marbles to Russia's Hermitage Museum — the first time in 200 years that any of the ancient sculptures, whose return has been strongly demanded by Greece, has left Britain.

The marble sculpture of the river god Ilissos —a reclining male figure from the west pediment of the Parthenon — will be part of a major exhibition on Greek art being held as the Hermitage marks its 250th anniversary. The museum in St. Petersburg is Russia's most renowned.

The trustees have always believed that such loans must continue ... in spite of political disagreements between governments- Neil MacGregor, British Museum director

The British Museum's trustees described the sculpture as a "stone ambassador of the Greek golden age," whose loan should continue despite the tensions between Britain and Russia over Ukraine. The loan runs from Dec. 6 to Jan. 18.

"The trustees have always believed that such loans must continue between museums in spite of political disagreements between governments," said British Museum director Neil MacGregor.

Loan likely to anger Greece

But the loan is sure to anger the Greek government, which wants all of the famous Parthenon marbles returned permanently to Athens.

The sculptures are at the heart of one of the world's most famous cultural heritage disputes.

The marbles decorated the Parthenon temple on the Acropolis for more than 2,000 years, but were removed at the beginning of the 19th century by Scottish nobleman Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, when it was fashionable for the aristocracy to collect ancient art.

Athens says they were removed while Greece was under Turkish occupation. The British Museum has long rejected their return, arguing that in London the marbles can be seen by a global audience, free of charge.

Lawyer Amal Alamuddin Clooney will advise on Greece's quest to have the Parthenon Marbles returned to Athens. Alamuddin's husband, actor George Clooney, has also campaigned for the Marbles' return. (Thanassis Stavrakis/AP Photo)

Efforts to return the works were recently given a fresh boost by lawyer Amal Clooney, wife of actor George Clooney, who stepped in to back the Greek cause.

The trip to the Hermitage marks the first time the sculptures had been requested for a loan to another country. The sculptures have never left the museum since being presented to the trustees by Parliament in 1816, with the exception of their evacuation for safekeeping in wartime.

The trustees have said they will consider any request for any part of the collection to be borrowed with the precondition "that the borrowing institution can guarantee its safe return."

The trustees said the loan to the Hermitage recognizes and celebrates "the parallel histories and common aims of two great museums."

"Both were founded on Enlightenment principles and both are united in working to take such principles forward through the 21st century," the museum said.

Britain's government played no role in the loan. Authorities underscored that the British Museum is independent of government interference — a view it has often repeated when Greece has sought to have the marbles returned.