For many years the British Museum has been fighting a lonely battle to keep the Elgin Marbles which were taken from the Parthenon in Greece in 1806 – legally, according the Museum, but stolen according to today's Greek government which has made it official policy to get them back. There are arguments to be advanced for both sides of this dispute but the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, will have drawn strength from a statement issued last weekend by directors of 18 other museums afirming their right to keep long–held antiquities which their countries of origin are demanding back.

Among the signatories of this unprecedented statement are the directors of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid, the Hermitage in St Petersburg and the Berlin Museum – all of whom have recently experienced pressure for the return of some of their most important treasures. The strongest case for their retention is that in leading museums they can be seen in the context of other civilizations, but it is easy to understand that the countries from which they were removed believe they should be available for their own people to see as evidence of their own early civilizations. Twenty years ago the actress Melina Mercouri, then minister of culture in the Greek government, called the removal of the Elgin Marbles ”an act of barbarism”. Today's Greek government speaks more softly but still wants them back for a new museum being built for the 2004 Olympics.