Will Britain lose its Marbles? Court to decide

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The long-running dispute over the rightful home of the Elgin Marbles looks likely to end in a bitter court battle and a family row between the descendants of the Scottish earl who first removed the ancient stones from Athens more than 200 years ago.

The British Government is named as a defendant in a court case being prepared by a group of Greek shipping tycoons advised by Bruce Tattersall, a barrister and distant relative of the 7th Earl of Elgin.

Mr Tattersall claims that the earl, cousin to his great, great grandmother, illegally acquired the 2,500-year-old marbles when he took them from the Acropolis and arranged for them to be sent to England in 1801.

The lawsuit, which is also being supported by the former judge and Bloody Sunday inquiry barrister, Sir Louis Blom-Cooper QC, is based on the civil law of theft also known as "conversion".

But the current 11th Earl of Elgin dismissed any question of illegality yesterday. "Nobody has said thank you for the incredible mission that he [Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin] undertook, which saved the artefacts from destruction.

"The Turkish authorities gave him leave to take them."

In a draft writ to be lodged at Marylebone County Court, lawyers for the Parthenon Marbles Trust argue that "legal title" was never passed to Lord Elgin or the British Museum under Greek, Ottoman or English law.