I have been aware of this letter for quite some time, but due to the fact that most of the articles I post are from current news sources, it has not been mentioned on this site before.
Many claim that at time of the removal of the Marbles Elgin was merely doing the same as many others & that it was not called into question. There are various things that suggest this is not the case, but the argument is still pushed as fact by many supporters of retention of the sculptures.
A letter from Robert Adair (who was in charge of British affairs in Constantinople in 1809 – 1810) clearly in a response to a request from Lord Elgin. It appears that Elgin had asked Adair for a letter to help to bolster his claim for the Marbles, although as no copy of this request exists, it is hard to know exactly what the request was.
Adair’s reply to Elgin was clear – “that the Porte absolutely denied your having any property in those marbles. By this expression I understood the Porte to mean that the persons who had sold the marbles to your Lordship had no right so to dispose of them.”
From this wording, it seems fairly clear that to Adair at least (and he was a senior diplomat on the ground in the country that was supposed to have permitted Elgin to remove the sculptures), that Elgin had absolutely no legal entitlement to the sculptures whatsoever.
You can read a much more in-depth analysis of this letter, along with photos of the original on Theodore Theodorou’s website.
Below is the full text of the letter.
July 31st 1811
In answer to your Lordship’s enquiry respecting the marbles collected by your Lordship at Athens, and for leave to transmit which to this country I was directed by the Sec(retary) of State for foreign affairs to apply to the Turkish government, I have to inform your Lordship that Mr Pisani more than once assured me that the Porte absolutely denied your having any property in those marbles. By this expression I understood the Porte to mean that the persons who had sold the marbles to your Lordship had no right so to dispose of them.
At the same time I beg leave to add that this communication was not made to me in any formal conference with the Turkish ministers.
I have the honour to be,
your Lordship’s most obed(ien)t
and humble serv(an)t