WAS THE REMOVAL OF THE MARBLES ILLEGAL?

 

By Professor Vassilis Demetriades, University of Crete

(This document was included as Appendix A to the submission of the British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles to the House of Commons Select Committee).

IMG0012 WAS THE REMOVAL OF THE MARBLES ILLEGAL?One of the most debated issues regarding the removal of the Acropolis sculptures by Lord Elgin and their transfer to England in 1800-01 is the legality of that act. In the present essay we will confine ourselves to the written evidence invoked to support the legality of the marbles’ removal. This evidence is an English translation of an Italian translation of a Turkish document. It was presented by Dr Hunt, chaplain to Elgin, to the British Parliamentary Committee formed in 1816 to examine the issue of the marbles’ acquisition by Elgin. The Turkish document itself, together with any other written testimony which could confirm that Elgin acted on the legitimate approval of the Ottoman authorities, has been lost.

According to Dr Greenfield, who has recently dealt with the issue of the restitution of objects of cultural significance to their countries of origin, ‘it is often presupposed that the legal position regarding the marbles is beyond serious dispute. This point of view has never been closely examined and demands serious scrutiny. . . The view of the British Government has also always been expressed in terms of the legality of the acquisition of the marbles. The Trustees and officials of the British museum have often gone on record as saying that the marbles were legally purchased… In the House of Lords debate of the proposed amendment in 1983 to the British Museum Act, Lord Nugent declared that the ‘question of legal ownership is beyond all doubt’. (1) The legality of this act, therefore, is taken for granted by the British Government and the Trustees of British Museum and is not debated.

Professor Merryman of Stanford University is of the same opinion, which he supports, relying ‘upon the subsequent acts of ratification by the Turkish authorities to overcome any arguments about those actions taken in excess of the original terms of the firman. In particular there were said to be two such instances of acquiescence, namely the issue by the sultan of additional firmans addressed to the voivode and disdar of Athens, in which he generally sanctioned what those local officials had done for Elgin and his party, and written orders by the Ottoman government to the Athenian government releasing a shipment of marbles to England when they were held up in Piraeus, the port of Athens. Again, whilst these events are referred to in correspondence, there are no authentic original documents in existence’. (2)

It is expedient, first of all, to go through the events that led to the issue of this single document. Lord Elgin was appointed ambassador of Great Britain to Constantinople in 1799. Even before setting out for his new post, he had planned to employ painters and designers to make replicas of Greek antiquities, following the cultural trends of his time (3). Passing through Sicily, he met painter and designer, Giovanni Batista Lusieri, who convinced Elgin to turn his interest to Athens (4). While in Italy, Elgin and his personal secretary, W. R. Hamilton, hired some painters and architects who, after going to Constantinople, arrived in Athens at the end of July 1800 (5). There they met Spiridon Logothetis, the British Consul, who helped them to settle and start their work (6).

Elgin’s men had from the beginning difficulties in getting access to the Acropolis to draw sketches and pictures of the monuments. They, like other travellers before them, had to bribe the Turkish dizdar into allowing them entry. It was later stated that the amount of money they gave to the dizdar was 5 guineas a day (7). If that was true, the total amount would have been incredibly high, especially since Lusieri’s salary was 200 English pounds a year.

IMG0075 WAS THE REMOVAL OF THE MARBLES ILLEGAL?The sum of 5 guineas a day was even characterized as ‘monstrous’ by Smith. Many years later in Egypt an English pound was equivalent to 72 piastres (gurus) (8). A payment of 5 guineas would suggest that they were paying at least 400 piastres a day to enter the Acropolis when Logothetis wrote to Elgin during the same period (September 1800) that 100 piastres was enough for the dizdar and another 100 for the Turks living around the Parthenon, a mosque at the time. Logothetis also asked for a letter recommending the artists and himself to the voivode,(9) the representative of Kizlar Agasi, the Archieunuch of the Sultan’s Harem, under whose authority Athens was a ‘vakouf’ of the Sultan’s mother (Valide Sultan). According to Elgin’s statement to the Parliamentary Committee which examined the marbles’ acquisition, payment of the 5 guineas a day went on from August 1800 to April 1801 (10).

In February 1801 Logothetis asked in another letter for a firman that would allow Elgin’s artists free access to the Acropolis. In March, the document they were expecting did not arrive.

In the spring of 1801 Lusieri went to Constantinople, obviously to brief Elgin on the progress of their work. At the beginning of March, Lusieri left for Athens where he arrived on 15 April. According to Smith, ‘a firman of some sort seems to have been obtained and forwarded to Logotheti, but it failed to reached him for a long time, and turned out to be an illusory document’ (11). In other words, it has never existed.

Lusieri wrote to Elgin that his men were facing difficulties in carrying out their duties because they did not have the necessary firman, supposedly sent by Elgin to Logothetis before his departure from Constantinople; it follows, that he did not have any document on his arrival in Athens. According to Lusieri,(12) Logothetis had never received the document. The dizdar declared that he could no longer allow Elgin’s men to enter the Acropolis without a firman, because the kadas and the voivode threatened him, and so Lusieri begged Elgin to have one sent as soon as possible, with a content that would prevent the occurrence of new obstacles (13). By the time Hunt arrived in Athens on 16 May, no document had been received. He himself then wrote to Elgin asking for the firman, otherwise it would be impossible to carry out any work of copying and drawing of the monuments (14).

The document, so much desired by Elgin and his men, and used to justify the removal of the Parthenon metopes, the Caryatid, and other antiquities from the Acropolis, was at last issued on 1 July 1801. A few days earlier, the French army in Egypt surrendered to the British army. It seems that Elgin took advantage of the situation and was granted by the Turks, as a gesture of gratitude, what he had been requesting, to no avail, for a long time. Elgin received it on 6 July and, two days later, Hunt, who was in Constantinople again, left for Athens, arriving on the twenty-second of the same month. He presented it to the Turkish authorities the next day; Elgin’s workmen were now free to begin their task (15).

The rest of the article  can be found here

“The request for the restitution of the Parthenon Marbles is not made by the Greek government in the name of the Greek nation or of Greek history. It is made in the name of the cultural heritage of the world and with the voice of the mutilated monument itself, that cries out for its marbles to be returned.”
Evangelos Venizelos, Former Greek Minister of Culture

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  3. PARTHENON MARBLES
  4. The world’s most disputed antiquities: a top 5 list
  5. Eight Reasons: Why the Parthenon Sculptures must be returned to Greece
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