British Imperial Pillage? The Parthenon Marbles

An Item in the Archaelogy News Network, 20 October 2021, with this title  Trophies For The Empire: The Case Of The Parthenon Sculptures”

A recently published article by eminent Professor David Rudenstine at New York’s University Cardozo Law School examines the cultural property dispute between Greece and Great Britain over the Parthenon Sculptures taken to London in the early 1800s by the British ambassador, Lord Elgin. The article specifically assesses the legality of their appropriation and argues that, contrary to conventional narrative, there is no evidence that establishes that Ottoman officials gave Elgin prior or subsequent written permission to remove the Parthenon Sculptures from the edifice. Three translations of the document were said to have been made (Ottoman to Italian, then Italian to English), however the English document has since been lost.

According to Professor Rudenstine “the assumption of a provable, coherent, documentary chain establishing the English document’s status as an authentic and accurate translation of the original Ottoman document is unproven, and in light of new evidence, probably false. It suggests that the actual relationship among these three documents is fundamentally different in character than has been previously presumed, and, further, that the traditional conception of the relationship among these three documents became viable only because of misrepresentation and deceit within the parliamentary proceedings of 1816.” Elsewhere, Rudenstine concludes “that the disputed documents [on which the legality of the acquisition of the Parthenon Sculptures was based] do not exist, while an additional document used by the [then] British Parliament to support their purchase was falsified… [[and that]] the British Museum continues to misrepresent the essential facts, and that its misrepresentations are knowing and deliberate.”

“This finding is not surprising”, says Ms. Irini Stamatoudi, Professor of Intellectual Property and Cultural Heritage at the Faculty of Law at the University of Nicosia. “Most publications point out that no firman, i.e. written permission from the Sultan himself, was ever given, as the British claim. There is only a simple letter from Seyid Abdullah, who was a kaimakam pasha (i.e. a substitute for the vizier) to the Ottoman judge and the military commander (voevodas) of Athens in order to facilitate the access of Elgin’s group to the Acropolis. The original is missing. The British historian William St. Clair possessed an Italian translation of the period, which is now in the hands of the British Museum. This translation bears no signature or stamp. Moreover, it contains significant variations from the English translation provided by Hunt, Elgin’s associate, to the parliamentary committee where the matter was debated, as a translation of the original. The above shows that it was not a firman (hence there was no legal permission to remove the Marbles). The differences between the Italian and English translations also call into question the content of the original.

“The disputed part of the letter (in the Italian translation) on which Elgin’s alleged permission was based states that he could make copies of the sculptures and take some pieces of stone, ‘qualche pezzi di pietra’. There would of course be no point in making copies of the sculptures if one could remove the originals. Even for the mores of the time, the destruction and vandalism of such a monument would never have brought the official permission of the Sultan. It is clear that Lord Elgin never obtained permission to remove the Sculptures. By implication, the British Parliament, which approved the purchase of the Sculptures, could not legally transfer them to the British Museum where they are today.

“These then are the ethical and legal issues surrounding the Parthenon Sculptures, as well as implications for repatriation claims today. In practice, however, the Sculptures are held by Britain, which since 1983 (when the issue of their return to UNESCO was raised) has not, to date, made any goodwill gesture towards their return to Athens. This is not due to misguided political moves, as one might argue. Greek positions on the issue have been unified, regardless of governments, although the Greek argument has evolved over the years.

“The British Museum represents a supposed cosmopolitanism, which it wishes to preserve as a continuation of a once great empire. At the same time it holds cultural treasures, some of which have been collected under dubious circumstances,such as colonialism, war and political pressure. The case of the Parthenon Sculptures therefore rattles the British narrative to its core. In response, the British Museum (along with 17 other museums with a similar history) has been treading on a new so-called ‘science-based’ argument – that of the World Museum. That is, the British Museum tells the history of the world through different examples of cultures, allowing visitors to make comparisons and draw conclusions. This is an approach that was only invented in 2002…

“Today there is an undeniable reality: the British own the Sculptures, which they have designated as their own national cultural heritage. Greece, on the other hand, has not only built a state-of-the-art museum with the aim of housing the reunited sculptures, it also has three important diplomatic moves to back its case:

Α. The issue of the Sculptures has become the most famous international cultural heritage case, on which numerous scientific and other articles have been written and which, as a result, has become a point of reference in this field.

Β. It is considered by the relevant UNESCO committee (ICPRCP) as a dispute between nations and not a dispute between museums (as Britain ardently wished in order to downgrade it).

C. Greece has succeeded in ensuring that it is never removed from the UNESCO agenda unless it is first resolved.

Ultimately, it is a shame that a country of Britain’s stature fails to realise after so many years that resolving such cultural differences serves to promote dialogue, cooperation and humanism between nations.”


Rudenstine’s article, titled ‘Trophies for the Empire: The Epic Dispute Between Greece and England over the Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum’, is published in a special open access issue of the Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal.


Sources: New York University Cardozo Law School & Kathimerini [September 20, 2021]





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3 responses to “British Imperial Pillage? The Parthenon Marbles

  1. anoma abeyerwardene

    Whether or not the British Museum should hand over the marbles to Greece is one thing. But to call their acquisition “imperial pillage”, implying that this was British imperial pillage like that of the Benin Bronzes, is disingenuous.
    In this case this was like someone spotting a bargain at a flea market and snapping it up, at a price satisfactory to both parties,, hardly “pillage”.

    These marbles lay neglected in a colony of the Ottoman Empire, ignored by both the imperial power (which was Turkish) and the Greeks. Its value was recognised and bought by a private individual who happened to be British.

    • Absolutely correct. And so refreshing to have it articulated clearly that the only empire in this instance was the Ottoman one.

      And as a tangential observation, modern-day Greeks also seem keen to overlook the fact that much of the desecration of the “pagan” Parthenon sculptures (those within easy reach) was undertaken by Christians when they converted the temple into a church.

      There’s so much humbuggery around this issue!

  2. George Stathopoulos

    Prof. Rudenstein’s comprehensive and well researched paper is titled “Trophies for the Empire The Epic Dispute Between Greece and England Over the Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum”. I commend the paper itself. The term “Imperial Pillage?”, which has the earlier responders excited, is not his term but subsequent third party reports of his paper. To concentrate on such headlines ignores the substantive issues.

    Elgin was hardly acting as a private individual and the acquisition was hardly in a “flea market”. Can it now be seriously contemplated that Elgin just “happened to be British”? As the Imperial British Ambassador Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of his Britannic Majesty to the Sublime Porte of Selim III, Sultan of Turkey in Constantinople he had access and influence that a private individual lacked. Having been refused access to the citadel on two prior occasions, what changed was the Imperial British victory ousting the French in Egypt and the Ottomans’ desire to curry Imperial British favour for control over Egypt. As Prof. Rudenstein states in his paper (which is supported by the British Parliamentary report at [13]):

    Elgin’s artisans were able to do what they did only because Elgin was the
    ambassador and because the British had just wrestled control of Egypt
    from the French. Elgin was able to accomplish what he did only because
    Britain was so powerful, that Elgin had abused his ambassadorial
    position, and that he had even utilized bribes.

    Elgin did not buy the sculptures – he stole (looted) them – he admitted that bribes were paid to the Ottoman authorities in Athens to enable his workers to saw and hack the sculptures from the citadel and to carry them away. This was contrary to his authority which was qualified by the condition that his access (for copying and making plaster casts) was not to damage the citadel.

    A bribe does not equate to a purchase price in a market – he was a thief.

    Even if he acquired them as an individual, as a thief he had no title to pass to the Imperial British state: Autocephalous Greek-Orthodox Church of Cyprus & The Republic of Cyprus v. Goldberg & Fieldman Fine Arts Inc 717 F.Supp. 1374 (1989) (US District Court).

    The same old tired and discredited excuses and red herrings are trotted out. This includes the fallacy that Elgin was rescuing the sculptures from both the Ottomans and the Greeks. Any damage by Christians was at least 400 years prior to Elgin. Further, talk of the Greeks abandoning or ignoring the sculptures misses the point that Athens and the Hellenic lands were under the yoke of Ottoman occupation for almost 400 years.

    As for the Ottomans, in the words of Prof. Rudenstein:

    [426] … the assertion that the Turks did not protect the Parthenon and
    sculptures was false and was undermined by Elgin’s own testimony that
    the Ottomans were so protective of the ancient monument that his
    artisans were more or less prevented from mounting the Parthenon until
    the British gained control of Egypt.

    The British Imperial Parliamentary enquiry was seriously flawed. They recommended a payment of a pittance to a desperate bankrupt Elgin. They glossed over the legalities of the acquisition and relied on dodgy documents.

    Britain gained no better title than the thief Elgin had.

    These issues were raised in the Parliamentary debate which is outlined in Prof. Rudenstein’s paper:

    [427] The prominent Hammersley argued that the government should
    hold the collection in trust until it was appropriate for the collection to be
    returned to Greece. In offering his proposal, Hammersley claimed
    that it was to be “regretted” that the government had not restrained Elgin
    in “this act of spoliation,” but since it had been committed, the
    government should “exert” itself “to wipe off the stain, and not place in
    our museum a monument of our disgrace.”

    Hammersley’s proposal did not convince enough members of Parliament to vote his way. That was a political decision.

    As was noted in the article, the famous Greek actress, Melina Mercouri, the Greek Minister of Culture in the 1980’s in an impassioned speech to British students at the Oxford Union said that the Parthenon sculptures are Greece’s “noblest symbol of excellence,” they are a “tribute to the democratic philosophy,” and they constitute the “essence of Greekness.”

    Trophies for the Empire is an apt description.

    Time for them to be reunited and the stain and disgrace to be wiped.

    George Stathopoulos

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