October 27, 2004

Birmingham barrister says that handing back the marbles is not an option

Posted at 2:05 pm in Elgin Marbles

In this article Peter Andrews QC, a Birmingham barrister, argues that Britain has a completely valid legal claim of ownership over the marbles. This whole article misses the point however, as the current Greek requests for the return of the marbles specifically makes no mention of the legality of the acquisition, or the issue of ownership. What they are asking for is for the marbles to be returned to Greece – to be displayed in Greece. The Greek government has previously stated publicly that they would be willing to accept them on a permanent loan. So the entire article whether right or wrong in its assertions (I am not a lawyer, so will not try to analyse this aspect, as others are far better able to do this than me) is essentially arguing over an aspect of the case that is irrelevant & only of incidental interest.
Does being legal necessarily make an action the right thing to do? Or does it mean that the action should no longer be questioned in any way?

ic Birmingham

‘Handing back’ the Elgin Marbles is not an option

Oct 27 2004

The Elgin Marbles are arguably the finest example of surviving ancient Greek sculptures in the world and yet they reside in the British Museum and not The Parthenon.

Arguments over whether they were saved by an heroic collector or plundered by an opportunist villain have lasted almost 200 years.

Birmingham barrister Peter Andrews QC examines the legal argument surrounding Britain’s retention of the stones The Elgin Marbles constitute one of the most famous and prestigious collections of ancient Greek sculptures anywhere in the world.

For two centuries they have been jealously guarded at the British Museum in London as its finest exhibit.

But does the UK have legal title to the marbles or is the museum the complicit recipient from a disgraceful episode of cultural looting, perpetrated by a British ambassador and nobleman named Elgin when Greece was at its most vulnerable in the early 19th Century?

Is this an open and shut case of a former imperialist power handling stolen goods on an international scale?

Between 1801 and 1811, Lord Elgin and his agents were busy collecting antiquities in Athens and dispatching them by the boat load to London. The Parthenon was at the top of their wish-list.

About half of its then remaining sculptures was removed by his men: some blocks picked from where they had fallen, some excavated from the ground nearby and some, notoriously, taken down from their original positions on the building itself.

Elgin convinced himself that the marbles were safer in his hands and was sure that he was not in any way acting illegally. On the contrary, as part of a cultural rescue mission at his own expense, he was saving the stones from final destruction.

The actions of Elgin, and his agents on the Acropolis, were regulated by an official firman – a written permit issued by the central Ottoman administration in Constantinople. It was a legally binding instruction to the local officials of the occupying Turkish regime in Athens that defined the limits of his authorised activities on the Acropolis, including what, if anything, he could take for his own.

The charge of illegal misappropriation habitually laid against Elgin depends on the true meaning and effect of the firman. Unfortunately, the original has never been found.

The only original document that remains is an Italian translation of the firman made for Elgin at the Ottoman court. But is the absence of the original document good enough reason to suspect Lord Elgin’s claim to legal possession?

The Italian version explicitly gives Elgin permission to draw, to measure, to put up ladders and scaffolding, to make plaster casts and to dig for what sculptures and inscriptions lay buried in the ground.

It does lack a modern day precision in its drafting on whether Elgin was permitted to remove the sculptured panels from the building itself.

However, a close analysis of the Italian reveals a brief injunction to the local officials concerning Elgin’s workmen: “when they wish to take away some pieces of stone with old inscriptions and figures, no opposition be made.”

On any cannon of literal interpretation, this seems to be both clear and compelling.

The collection was finally purchased by the British Government from Elgin in June 1816 for the sum of £35,000.

Within a decade of the sale, and ironically, enjoying vital

naval support from Great Britain, the modern and independent Greek state came into existence.

I would suggest that the actions of Elgin and his stone collectors had both an explicit and a general authority for removal conferred by the firman. The document was an express direction to the local pasha and his men in charge of the garrison village that if Elgin wished to take away pieces of stone with old inscriptions and figures, he was fully entitled to do so at his own expense.

There was no limit as to quantity, quality or source; no mention of whether pieces on the land or in the land, whether broken or undamaged, and if only separate from the building or if still attached to the ruined temple structure.

Moreover, Elgin’s team must have enjoyed the permissive co-operation of the local representatives of the sovereign state of the day.

When the British Parliament considered the proposed purchase of the marbles from Elgin in the following decade, the price was fiercely debated but no word was raised about any lack of good title.

In my view Elgin obtained, and through him the UK plc has, a better legal title than any other contender. The firman, although poorly drafted and perhaps inadequate by present day standards, has to be considered in the light of local practice at the time.

It was certainly enough to convince first, the local officials in Athens and then an initially sceptical purchaser in the form of the British Government. It underpinned a very public debate about purchase and valuation.

But is that conclusion enough to answer what is probably the longest running cultural controversy in the world: to whom do world-class heritage monuments such as the Parthenon really belong – to landowner individuals, to the nation state on the basis of serendipitous modern day location or to the whole of mankind?

Of course, legal ownership will not always provide ready answers for these demanding questions. The debate has been running longer than the marathon. Insults have been traded between the participating modern nation states.

The UK may have an unimpeachably good legal title, but is this enough to justify the continued custody of the Parthenon stones?

The United Kingdom’s position as the legitimate owner of the Marbles is legally and morally unassailable.

Lord Elgin not only saved them for mankind, he did so honestly. He had the express permission of the only sovereign state able to give the necessary authority. The British Museum is rightly proud to display them to the whole of mankind.

In my view “handing back” is not an option.

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