By Europe correspondent Barbara Miller Saturday 6 December 2014
The British Museum is loaning one of the Elgin Marbles to the Hermitage in St Petersburg, but the Greeks desperately want the works back, saying they were acquired illegally and are rightfully theirs.
The sculptures, some of the British Museum's most prized and controversial works, have not left the UK since Lord Elgin brought them there from Athens 200 years ago.
Now one of the works - a headless sculpture of the Greek river god Ilissos - has left the UK, but will be displayed not in Athens but in St Petersburg at the Hermitage.
Greek prime minister Antonis Samaras described the move as an affront to his country.
Sir Richard Lambert, the chairman of the British Museum Trustees, is unapologetic.
"We are a museum of the world, for the world," he said.
"We lent last year 5,000 objects to 340 museums around the world. We are a lending institution, that's what we do."
London-based historian and author Dominic Selwood said the Elgin Marbles were acquired "completely legitimately" by Lord Elgin in 1801.
I think it's precisely because relations between [the West and Russia] are difficult that this kind of loan is so important.
British Museum director Neil MacGregor
"When he arrived in Athens he saw them being destroyed," he said.
"There had been a program since 500 when Athens started wrecking them, through to the Ottomans when he was there, who were grinding them up and selling them off for lime, using them for target practice and giving them to tourists.
"He realised that he had to do something to save these artefacts. So I think that the debate is often coloured by saying that Lord Elgin was a thief.
"But in fact it's only thanks to him that we have such good quality artefacts left today."
Mr Selwood said stolen or looted artefacts were routinely returned to their original homes in modern times, but said "no-one was seriously doubting" the British Museum owned the Elgin Marbles.
"The question is really whether there is some broader or wider cultural reasons for returning them," he said.
"But from a straightforward legal perspective, the British Museum owns them and they've said time and again they will loan them, as with any other artefacts, to any museum that wants to exhibit them.
"But the Greeks haven't been willing to give an assurance that they would return them."
British Museum director Neil MacGregor said the loan was particularly important given the current geo-political tensions between the West and Russia, which have caused analysts to talk about the development of a new Cold War.
"I think it's precisely because relations between the countries are difficult that this kind of loan is so important," he said.
"And so does the Hermitage. Both institutions believe that precisely at moments like that, that the museums have to keep speaking."
The statue will be on display in Russia until January - a short loan, but one with potentially long-term consequences for British-Greek relations.