March 7, 2008

Are the Elgin Marbles a Scottish issue?

Posted at 3:51 pm in Elgin Marbles

Whilst I agree with the views of this correspondent that the Parthenon Sculptures should be returned, I’m not convinced that it is necessarily a particularly Scottish issue anymore. I can well understand though why he might want Scotland to rid itself of any negative association with the issue.

The Scotsman

Published Date: 07 March 2008
Source: The Scotsman
Location: Scotland
Return Elgin Marbles and lay ‘curse of Minerva’ to rest

Unsurprisingly, you did not report the recent debate (20 February) at the Cambridge University Union on the repatriation of the Parthenon Marbles to the new Acropolis Museum in Athens. One more volley in a 200-year-old spat is hardly “news”. However, it did deserve mention in Scotland – indeed, the debate should have been held in a Scottish, rather than an English seat of learning.
Regardless of the outcome in Cambridge (overwhelmingly in favour of the return of the Marbles), for several reasons it is Scotland’s view on this subject that really matters.

First, the seventh Earl of Elgin, the man who removed the sculptures, was a Scot. He was, at the time, British ambassador in Constantinople; but in removing the sculptures from the Acropolis buildings he, through his agents in Athens, was acting in a personal capacity. His intention was to transport them to Scotl
and, to embellish the mansion he was building at Broomhall, Fife. The decision to offer the Parthenon sculptures for sale to the British Museum was made subsequent to their removal and transportation. Lord Elgin was, until his death, a domiciled Scot and his activities were and should still be a matter of concern to his compatriots, if not Scots law.

The fundamental question is, as a matter of Scots law, to be determined ultimately by the Scottish courts, did Lord Elgin have the right to “sell” the sculptures in his possession? As Byron reminds us in The Curse of Minerva, “Frown not on England; England knows him not: Athena, no! thy plunderer was a Scot.” It is time for Scotland to help lay the ghosts of the sculptures and with them “the curse of Minerva” to rest. There’s a new home waiting for them back in their own country.

JOHN A KAPRANOS HUNTLEY, Rubislaw Drive, Glasgow

The full article contains 311 words and appears in The Scotsman newspaper.
Last Updated: 07 March 2008 12:15 AM

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1 Comment »

  1. John Huntley said,

    03.11.08 at 12:03 am

    The version of my letter printed by ‘The Scotsman’ was an edited version of the original draft. I was not suggesting that the matter is an exclusively Scottish one. You are right to say the issues involved are of international concern. My argument is that there is official silence – indeed there is no publicly audible voice of concern – in Scotland. This despite the historic roots of the entire matter in Scotland. My hope (forlorn, it seems) was to get some kind of reaction.

    My original draft contained the following:

    “No matter how complex or beneficent Lord Elgin’s motives might have been (and there is no reason to doubt that, in part at least he believed that he was saving the sculptures from the perceived indifference of the Ottoman authorities), his actions were, on the face it of dubious legitimacy. The firman, or written permission from the Sultan in Constantinople on which Lord Elgin based his claim, exists only as a copy drafted in Italian by one of Elgin’s agents; and even in that form does not grant permission to remove sculptures from the Parthenon buildings. Many at the time believed Elgin’s actions to be at least folly and, for some, much worse. It was and remains, on the face of it doubtful whether Lord Elgin ever actually owned the sculptures, or was even in legal possession of them. As the actions of a Scot, their legal status and effect are at least a matter of interest for Scots law.

    A third reason is the dubiety over the “sale” of the sculptures by Elgin to the British Museum. Even at the time (1816), many – including prominent Scots – doubted Elgin’s entitlement to “sell.” The outcome of the “sale,” however was to divert all attention from Scotland to the location of the marbles in the British Museum. This, coupled with the fact that the only authorities dealing with the matter were in London, meant that all doubts about Elgin’s title to the sculptures were “resolved” by Parliament’s decision to “buy them for the nation.” At worst, the British Museum is simply in possession of property to which they have no title, because the person who sold it to them had no title. One could be less generous and agree with another Scot, George Gordon, Lord Byron that Lord Elgin’s intention by 1916 was “To sell, and make – may shame record the day! The state receiver of his pilfer’d prey.” It is at least arguable that Parliament dealt with the unwanted problem created by Lord Elgin in the most sensible way available at that time. Since then, the British Museum has had to fend off the ‘Marbalistas”. One might argue about the nature and wisdom of the British Museum’s defence of its position, but undeniably it muddies the fundamental question: as a matter of Scots law, to be determined ultimately by the Scottish courts, did Lord Elgin have the right to ‘sell’ the sculptures in his possession? As Byron reminds us in The Curse of Minerva, “Frown not on England; England knows him not: Athena, no! thy plunderer was a Scot.”

    Perhaps the most compelling reason for the matter of the Parthenon sculptures to be more openly and deeply debated in Scotland is the obligations imposed by devolution and the Scotland Act 1998. Before devolution, it could be argued that questions over the Parthenon sculptures were solely for the British Museum and the United Kingdom Government to resolve. The Scotland Act 1998 reserves no powers, legislative or executive over cultural matters to Westminster and by implication clearly devolves legislative and executive powers to the Scottish authorities. Indeed, on more than one occasion has the Parthenon sculptures issue come before the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Government, however has remained silent. The First Minister, Alex Salmond and the Minister for Europe, External Affairs and Culture, Linda Fabiani are both acutely aware of the issues surrounding the repatriation of artefacts. Indeed, the fate of the Stone of Destiny makes all Scots acutely aware of the meaning and significance of ‘artefacts’ like the Parthenon sculptures.

    There is evidence of an enviable cultural maturity in post-devolution Scotland, witnessed in part by the repatriation of artefacts and a general willingness to put right the wrongs of the past. No longer do Scots speak of the tobacco and sugar barons without at least an awareness of how those fortunes were amassed. Perhaps the time is right for Scotland to take responsibility for past actions and settle the issue of the Parthenon Marbles once and for all. It certainly will not be settled by a debate in the University of Edinburgh, or even Holyrood.”

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