August 1, 2004
At the same time as there is renewed interest in the Parthenon Marbles due to the Olympics, a book on the life of Mary Elgin, the wife of Lord Elgin is soon to be published.
Mary Elgin & the Elgin Marbles,
July 31, 2004, 9:30PM
Playing for all Elgin Marbles
Dispute between Greece, England resumes with Olympics Games
Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle News Service
With the Olympic Games soon to open in Athens, one of the more bitter rivalries in history is set to resume, and it doesn’t involve parallel bars or water polo. The Greek government is spending tens of millions of dollars on a museum atop the Acropolis in hopes that Britain will choose this occasion to return the Elgin Marbles, the elaborate sets of sculptures pried off the Parthenon and shipped to London two centuries ago. The British, unsurprisingly, have not complied.
To understand why the sculptures mean so much to both sides and why the dispute is so difficult to resolve, one must look back over the ages, and consider the woman who started it all.
Appointed Great Britain’s ambassador extraordinary to Constantinople in 1799, Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin and 11th Earl of Kincardine, asked the British government if it would subsidize a project to draw and make molds of antiquities on the Acropolis to help educate artists and the public in England (Greece was then controlled by the Ottoman Empire). The answer was no. He left for the Orient with his brand new, and very rich, bride, Mary Nisbet, whose own money would support the venture.
Elgin hired the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Lusieri to oversee the project, and in Turkey he obtained a “firman,” an official document signed by Sultan Selim III, authorizing the work to begin. Removing the sculptures was not Elgin’s original plan. But he was occupied with his duties in Constantinople, and delegated the job at the Acropolis to the Rev. Philip Hunt, his chaplain and on-site archaeologist. Hunt, in his enthusiasm to compete on Elgin’s behalf with other Europeans dragging home chunks of ruins as souvenirs, went to Constantinople seeking a more generous firman. He got it and, in July 1801, returned to Athens.
Later that summer, the British Army drove the French from Alexandria, recovering Egyptian territory for the Ottomans. The sultan, grateful to the English and wildly attracted to the glamorous Lady Elgin, honored the couple with extravagant trinkets and a permanent embassy at his own expense. Lady Elgin was even invited to Topkapi Palace to meet the power behind the throne — the sultan’s mother, or Valida Sultana — becoming the first Westerner invited to witness the opulence and mystery of the fabled harem. The Valida Sultana’s personal portfolio included the Acropolis — which, at that time, the Turks considered a slum.
In the spring of 1802, the Elgins finally got to Athens. Lady Elgin, pregnant with her third child, stayed to supervise her husband’s project while he went island-hopping. The first two firmans had already been passed on to local authorities, and Lady Elgin had subsequent firmans that authorized the sculptures’ removal.
She wrote to her husband that she “told Lusieri of the firmans, he says nothing can be going on better than everything, so for the present I shall lock them up.” She even wrapped some of the marbles for shipping herself, and persuaded two British Navy captains to disobey Lord Nelson’s orders and transport the cases to England.
Things went sour pretty quickly. In the winter of 1805-06, the British government began a 10-year wrangle over the marbles. Elgin was then a prisoner of war in France and Mary, in London, received a visit from officials who offered to take the marbles off her hands. She wrote him, “I desire them to make their offer, that it is impossible for me to fix any sum — I shall see what is said, it is always well to have that in one’s power.”
Two years later, Lord Elgin divorced his wife in two scandalous trials and an act of Parliament, bringing notoriety to them both. Mary lost custody of her children, and Lord Elgin lost access to his wife’s fortune, forcing him to sell the marbles. Appraisals ranged from 25,000 pounds from detractors to estimates as high as 100,000 pounds by the papal envoy, the sculptor Antonio Canova. (The average laborer then earned about 7 pounds a year).
Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria was reported to have given Lord Elgin a blank check. He asserted that gathering and shipping home the collection had cost him (or, more accurately, his wife) nearly 75,000 pounds, or what in today’s money would be equal to the purchasing power of about $4 million.
In 1816, the British government offered Elgin, then hugely in debt, 35,000 pounds — 18,000 pounds of it paid directly from the government to a creditor, and the balance earmarked for other creditors. Had he sold the collection abroad, he could have avoided his creditors, but he was intensely patriotic and refused to instigate a bidding war. He received neither profit nor fair value, yet for 200 years he has been denigrated as a crass commercialist.
Elgin’s reputation aside, several contemporary legal scholars make a strong argument for the Greek side in the current debate. David Rudenstine, the dean of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, has forcefully argued that the 1816 parliamentary proceedings that affirmed the government’s purchase from Lord Elgin were tainted and incomplete.
According to Rudenstine, the July 1801 firman, which was not even produced at those hearings and has been publicly seen only in an Italian translation without the signature or seal of the sultan, did not give Elgin the authority to remove sculptures from the Parthenon walls, only to excavate.
But by 1816, the sale was a foregone conclusion, and both the government and Elgin may well have been sloppy with evidence that wasn’t going to change the outcome.
Until international law or diplomacy changes things, that verdict will stand, and the British Museum will keep the marbles.
As for the former Lady Elgin, she didn’t even testify in 1816, and the content of the other firmans was never revealed. She was at her castle in Scotland enjoying the ancient gymnasiarch’s chair — the chair Olympic judges sat on during the competition — which had been presented to her parents by the Greek Orthodox archbishop in her honor.
Nagel is the author of the forthcoming “Mistress of the Elgin Marbles : A Biography of Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin.”
- Was the removal of the Elgin Marbles legal? : September 3, 2008
- How legal was Elgin’s Firman : August 29, 2008
- Newly discovered letter indicates that Elgin had no right to remove the Parthenon Sculptures : November 6, 2002
- The Elgin family busts in Ottawa : October 26, 2011
- Mary Elgin : January 9, 2005
- Sotheby’s didn’t sell the Elgin Marbles – they sold a marble sculpture that was legally purchased by Lord Elgin : December 12, 2012
- Pressure mounts for the return of the Elgin Marbles : June 19, 2009
- Are the Elgin Marbles a Scottish issue? : March 7, 2008