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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. 

Trophies for the Empire: The case of the Parthenon Sculptures
Credit: ANA-MPA

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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1 comment :

  1. In a day and age where technology has advanced to the stage where it would be feasible to make exact copies of the Elgin marbles, surely the British Museum could do just that and repatriate stolen artefacts to their place of initial origin. They would still get to demonstrate the progress of humankind worldwide and, as they would not be marring originals they could even paint the copies to demonstrate their original appearance.


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