They have been at the centre of a decades-long tussle between Britain and Greece.
But the ‘stolen’ Elgin Marbles were actually a gift, according to a descendant of the man who brought them to UK shores.
Lord Charles Bruce said the friezes, now on display in the British Museum, were handed by a Turkish sultan to his forebear Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin.
In return, the earl gave him a chandelier – and the smallpox vaccine.
The marbles were removed from the ruins of the Parthenon temple in Athens and shipped to England between 1801 and 1805. At the time, Greece was part of the Turks’ Ottoman Empire.
The legitimacy of their journey to the UK has been the subject of debate between Britain and the Greek authorities, who claim the marbles were stolen.
But Lord Bruce, 57, son of the current earl, has now come forward to defend the museum’s entitlement to the marbles, also known as the Parthenon Sculptures.
He claimed his ancestor was given permission to remove and conserve them by Turkish sultan Selim III as part of his role as the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.
He said: ‘The marbles were a diplomatic gift. It’s a part of the story not clearly understood.
‘The British had cemented a military alliance with the Turks, and there was a personal friendship between Elgin and the sultan. They exchanged gifts, and there’s a beautiful chandelier from Elgin which still hands in the Topkapi Palace [in Istanbul] in a room where Lady Elgin taught the sultan’s family to dance the eightsome reel.
‘We also gave them the smallpox vaccine, which prevented an outbreak in Smyrna [now Izmir in Turkey], and later went on to Baghdad and Bombay, and was used to inoculate a million Indians.’
Lord Bruce said the sultan also gave Lord Elgin four acres of land in Istanbul and £10,000 for Britain’s first purpose-built embassy.
The marbles were put on display in a temporary museum before moving to the British Museum in 1817.
Recently lawyer Amal Clooney, wife of actor George Clooney, and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn have backed returning them to Greece.
The British Museum’s website says Lord Elgin was ‘passionate about ancient Greek art’ and removed the sculptures ‘with the full knowledge and permission of the Ottoman authorities’. Their arrival in London ‘promoted the high regard that the European Enlightenment already had for ancient Greek civilisation’.