August 29, 2008

How legal was Elgin’s Firman

Posted at 1:00 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, New Acropolis Museum

The Firman was an Ottoman legal document issued to Lord Elgin. It only survives in translation, but is used as the basis of proving the supposed legality of Elgin’s removal of the Parthenon Sculptures from Athens. A historian who has researched this document & other similar documents is now casting doubt over whether the firman actually gave Elgin the permissions that were claimed.

The Times

August 29, 2008
Legality of Earl of Elgin’s acquisition challenged by scholar
Dalya Alberge, Arts Correspondent

The new Acropolis Museum may prove to be the most lavishly appointed white elephant in history. Nothing will change the view of the British Government that the intended centrepiece, the magnificently sculpted Elgin Marbles, must remain permanently in the British Museum.

Not that the museum will be empty. There will be 4,000 exhibits including the remaining Parthenon sculptures. But the crown jewels, the 247ft of the original 524ft frieze, 15 of 92 metopes and 17 figures from the pediments, all dating to the 5th century BC, will remain 1,500 miles away in London.

Britain has long argued that when the Earl of Elgin took the Marbles between 1801 and 1805, he was acting legally and that, had he not done so, they would have suffered further deterioration. The Parthenon was already a ruin. Also, fearing their destruction in the conflict between the Greeks and the Turks, Elgin got permission from the Turks, whose empire then ruled Greece, to remove the antiquities.

But the British Museum’s ownership of the sculptures has been called into question by a challenge to the validity of a crucial 19th-century legal document. A specialist in Ottoman law says that without the signature and seal of the Sultan as supreme head of the Ottoman Empire, Lord Elgin had no legal right to remove the ancient sculptures from the Acropolis.

Professor Vassilis Dimitriadis, of the University of Crete, says that the document of 1801 — an Italian translation of an Ottoman firman or licence which the British Museum acquired two years ago as the only legal evidence of ownership — is invalidated by vital missing elements.

The British Museum argues that the translated document is from a lost original firman in which the Sultan’s acting grand vizier was authorised to permit Elgin to acquire the sculptures.

Professor Dimitriadis claims that the original was not a firman because only the Sultan could issue one by Ottoman law, that it lacks the Sultan’s emblem (a tougras), and an invocation to God (da’vet tahmid).

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  1. Jason Rush said,

    03.31.21 at 3:26 am

    Well I find the notice rather interesting since regardless of whether it was taken with or without permission is besides the point in this matter. Firstly the Ottomans, who are today’s Turks, did not care then and even now about these historical works or the history surrounding them. They destroyed them because they are commanded to in their book, the Quran. Elgin preserved them so we can understand more about the history of the past. As the saying goes, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Coming to the Greeks, the first time they were a nation as a whole, was not until 1870. Since they had no administration for the preservation of such artifacts when Elgin took them and even sometime after their independence, no argument can be sufficiently argued by the Greeks. It is as if a man arguing for the property that his father sold back, when he was a child. The father being dead now, but being the rightful owner at the time and having authority to do with it how he pleases, even inspite of what the son thinks. Him being a man now and having the same free will. If the Greeks want it back so much they will have to bargain for it and be as respectful as possible. Making insults whether true or not, because no one can prove for sure the matter, for it is a matter of persuasion and view point of interest than obtainable truth at this point in time.

  2. nick pparavatos said,

    05.04.23 at 3:51 pm

    To answer to mr. Rush above and his example I d like to point out that the parallelism with the example of the father is entirely out of context. The father was never enslaved and had free will in deciding to sell his son’s potential wealth. The Greeks were enslaved and were forced to accept Ottoman rule and it wasn’t their choice. When you have a gun on your head you have hardly free will to sell or buy.
    Now, the British Museum’s argument is clearly based on the legality of a document that is not an original one. There was never an original firman by the Ottomans who were very meticulous in keeping records throughout their rule. So there s no argument really on that matter. They were and always will be Greek and you have to accept it. And, really, the matter has to be referred to an international court for further action as it is without any doubt a major fraud on government level

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