The allegations that the 2,500-year-old Greek sculptures were "skinned" with wire wool, Carborundum, hammers and copper chisels to remove their original stained patina and the last traces of painted decoration come as pressure mounts on Britain to return the marbles to Athens.
The British Museum, which has convened the conference, is accused of orchestrating an "illegal and improper" cover-up after the marbles were scraped clean by unskilled workers in the late Thirties. According to a report published yesterday two British prime ministers, the museum's professional staff and even the present Secretary of State for Culture, Chris Smith, were misled as to the extent of the damage.
William St Clair, the historian whose paper is published in the International Journal of Cultural Property, claims that the museum conspired to conceal the extent of the damage to save its reputation. He also claims to have evidence which casts doubt on Britain's claim to the legal title to the marbles.
The conference will hear evidence from Greek conservationists who have compiled a 100-page report detailing the "irreparable damage". The Greek Culture minister, Elisavet Papazoi, said yesterday: "The conclusion of this inquiry brings to light and proves that the extent of the problem is even greater than what was originally anticipated."
The damage was done after the British government entered an agreement with Lord Duveen, an entrepreneur with a reputation for restoring European masterpieces, to finance a new gallery for the marbles. Lord Duveen decided that the marbles, which had become discoloured by years of exposure to the London atmosphere, should be cleaned.
The British Museum, which has had possession of the marbles since 1816, maintains that the damage is not as significant as has been suggested. Michael Daley, director of ArtWatch UK who is on the panel at today's conference, believes the damage is being exploited by those who want to see the marbles returned to Greece. Writing in next month's Art Review magazine, he maintains that far worse treatment of classical marbles was carried out 15 years later in Athens.