Greek fury at Elgin marbles 'loan deal'

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Queen turns down invitation to opening of major new museum in Athens built to house Acropolis treasures.

A bitter new row over ownership of the Elgin marbles has erupted, threatening to eclipse the inauguration this week of a major new museum in Athens designed to house the contested masterpieces.

Just days before the opening of the €130m (£110m) New Acropolis Museum, officials in Athens and London were this weekend engaging in barbed exchanges over the classical treasures.

The dispute, which has indirectly dragged in the Queen, the Greek-born Duke of Edinburgh, and Gordon Brown, re-erupted when Hannah Boulton, the British Museum's spokeswoman, told an Athens radio station that it would consider a loan request from Greece provided that it acknowledged, as is customary with all borrowing institutions, that London owned the pieces. The sculptures, she said, could be displayed in the New Acropolis Museum for three or four months, "the length of time for an average loan of objects".

Celebrities, royals and heads of state are expected to attend Saturday's inauguration of the museum, built within sight of the Parthenon, at the foot of the Acropolis. However, delegates from Britain, including the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, have been quick to send their regrets. Last week, Gordon Brown declined his invitation. Ben Bradshaw, the new secretary for culture and sport, followed suit, as did Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum. It has been left for two British Museum curators to represent the UK.

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