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How Scotland should be dealing with the Elgin Marbles issue

John Huntley follows up his earlier letter to the Scotsman [1], explaining the basis for how legal action could be taken in the Scottish courts over the Elgin Marbles.

Scotsman [2]

Purchase or plunder? A clear case for Scottish court to decide
Published Date: 06 August 2008

LET’S go to Fife to see the Parthenon Marbles. We might have done, had Thomas Bruce had his way. The seventh Lord Elgin “acquired” them for his new mansion at Broomhall. Grand designs for a grand man.

Instead, we can see them in London’s British Museum, which “acquired” the “Elgin” Marbles in 1816.

A new museum in Athens will open this autumn to house all the Parthenon Marbles – including the “Elgin” Marbles, if the British Museum repatriates them.

Why should it, you might ask? London is more a cultural hub than Athens; the British Museum is truly international. And anyway, they belong to the museum, don’t they?

That depends on how they were “acquired/appropriated”. Here’s a short run-down:

1789: Elgin is appointed ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, of which Athens was then part.

1801: A firman, or official document, is addressed to the governor of Athens, allowing Lord Elgin to take plaster casts, with wide powers to remove material from the Acropolis. It does not specifically permit him to remove fixtures, nor authorise any sales or payments for anything to anyone.

1801-12: Lord Elgin and his agents, acting in a private capacity, not as representatives of the UK government, remove, by hacking or sawing, various marbles fixed to the Acropolis buildings, including the Parthenon, causing irreparable damage to sculptures and buildings. Money was paid to Turkish officials to secure this.

1816: Westminster parliament “purchases” the marbles for £35,000.

No doubt some of Lord Elgin’s motives were laudatory – “early acts of conservation” and the British government/Museum “purchase” must be seen in context. What else could they do? Repatriate them to an indifferent Ottoman regime? Let them rot in warehouses? Sell them to the Americans?

Did Lord Elgin and, subsequently, the British Museum ever own them? Imagine Lord Elgin inviting me to Broomhall and, without permission, I help myself to his doors, windows and murals, then try to sell them as my property. How could I prove I lawfully owned them?

Well, you might say, he paid for and took possession of them, which at least raises a presumption of ownership, like payment for a car that turns out to be stolen.

The proper place for such matters is a court of law. But which court – and who could bring such an action? Certainly not the UK government, which regards this a matter entirely for the trustees of the British Museum, who are independent of government. The trustees could initiate an action, as they did in 2002 to determine whether they could return artefacts looted by the Nazis to former owners. But why should they want to test ownership of the marbles?

The repatriation of cultural artefacts and antiquities is a cultural matter: a devolved competence under the Scotland Act 1998. But what Scottish competence is there over the Parthenon Marbles, in the possession of a museum outwith the Scottish Government’s jurisdiction? The Lewis Chessmen, the Stone of Destiny – surely there is competence here. Lord Elgin, a domiciled Scot acting in a private and non-governmental capacity, intended to bring the marbles to Scotland. Not only is there competence, there is a duty to act. But is there a will?

The political fallout would, of course, be immense: the impact on our museums (dare I again mention the Lewis Chessmen?); on our long-established cordial relationships with the British and other English museums; the international impact.

These, like Lord Elgin’s motives, are irrelevant. Surely a Scottish court can determine if a Scot acquired ownership. If a court decides it had, the British Museum’s case is based on some justice; if not, it should repatriate them.

Either way, Scottish justice, and honour, would be satisfied.”