Izidor Janžekovič: The Elgin Marbles: Legitimate Expatriation or Urgent Repatriation?

Izidor Janžekovič

Izidor Janžekovič is an archaeologist and historian, currently researching for a PhD in comparative history at the Central European University in Vienna. He holds two MPhils in Archaeology and History in which he graduated summa cum laude at the University of Ljubljana. For the Master’s thesis about the “old Slavic sanctuary” at Ptuj Castle, he received Prešeren Award for the best Master’s thesis in his generation. He completed an MSt in British and European History at the University of Oxford with the thesis on the Anglo-Dutch Wars (1652–74). He has published numerous original articles in notable journals.

Izidor Janžekovič’s article presents the story behind Elgin’s acquisition of the “Elgin Marbles” and the collection’s path to England by scrutinizing correspondence, memoranda, travelogues, reports, parliamentary minutes and legal documents. It seeks to problematize the role of museums in obviating significant discussions of the repatriation of cultural resources.


In the fall of 2002, the eighteen major European and North American museums signed the Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums (henceforth Declaration). The directors handed it to the British Museum which officially published the Declaration on its website.[1] Except in the title of the Declaration, the phrase “universal museum” does not appear in the document, and it does not even truly define it. The Declaration was not so much the establishment of these major museums as universal museums, as it was a counterattack against more and more repatriation requests. But how is this Declaration connected to the Elgin Marbles?

In 2004, Athens hosted the Olympic Games again, so the repatriation requests for the Elgin Marbles had intensified in the preceding years. During these tense times for the British Museum, a new director, Neil MacGregor, was nominated in August 2002. He was probably the spiritus agens behind the Declaration, although he is not amongst the first eighteen signatories. The absence of the British Museum was odd at the time considering its status in the international community of museums and the fact that it published the Declaration on its website.[2] Presumably, because MacGregor wanted to hide the ‘particular’ interest behind this “universal declaration,” he was not amongst the first signatories. In the Declaration, the only example given for the “universal admiration for ancient civilizations,” available in major museums, was the “sculpture of classical Greece.” It was probably an attempt to ‘protect’ one of the most notorious museum collections in the world against repatriation.

Repatriation is defined as the process of restoring someone or something to his homeland or ‘fatherland’ (patria). At first, it meant the return of the prisoners of war or refugees, but today it also includes the restitution of cultural artifacts. The connection to war is not at all inappropriate for museum artifacts, as many famous museum collections in the West were collected by the occupation armies or colonial governments. Nowadays, we are faced with several legal and ethical dilemmas concerning the ownership of the cultural heritage, which is by definition contentious.

Who owns the Parthenon sculptures today? Are they the property of modern Greeks, British or the whole world? According to the UNESCO World Heritage List, where “the Acropolis of Athens and its monuments” have been inscribed since 1987, they ‘belong’ to the whole world. Cultural heritage, however particular or singular it may be, should be universally owned and cared for.[3] But where should it be displayed? This question has been in the center of the global museum community during the past decades, as more and more repatriation requests have been raised. The large museums have found themselves in an unfavorable position, where they have to defend their suspiciously acquired art collections.

This article presents the story behind Elgin’s acquisition of the “Elgin Marbles” and the collection’s path to England by scrutinizing correspondence, memoranda, travelogues, reports, parliamentary minutes and legal documents.[4] The broader geopolitical context was one of the crucial reasons for the collection’s fate. The paper also depicts the response from the contemporaneous public. Furthermore, the question of the legality of Elgin’s actions is assessed. The Greek repatriation request for the Elgin Marbles is discussed within a larger context. I argue that the establishment of the so-called universal museums are the patronizing attempts of the large museums to avoid any sincere discussion about the repatriation requests.

The Geopolitical Context and the Diplomatic Mission

In 1798, a triumphant 28-year-old general Napoleon Bonaparte crossed the Mediterranean and came ashore in Egypt on 1 July 1798. Egypt was de jure under the Sublime Porte in Constantinople or Istanbul, but de facto it was ruled by the less than servile Mamluks (Arab. for slaves). On 21 July, the French won the Battle of the Pyramids against the local Mamluks. However, Napoleon’s triumph was short-lived. On 1 August, Horatio Nelson tracked down the French navy and laid waste to Napoleon’s fleet at the Battle of the Nile in Aboukir Bay.[5] In September 1798, when the Turks found out about Nelson’s victory, they declared war on France. The British wanted to use this situation, secure an ally, defeat the French and ensure the trading privileges – that would be the duties of the new ambassador to the Porte.

This is where Thomas Bruce (1766–1841), 7th Earl of Elgin (henceforth Elgin), comes to stage. In August 1798, King George III personally advised the 32-year-old Elgin that he should apply for the ambassador to Turkey. Elgin was an experienced diplomat, as he worked on many missions in Vienna, Brussels and Berlin.[6] Foreign Secretary, Lord Grenville, liked the idea, so within days Elgin was appointed as the new “Ambassador Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of His Britannic Majesty to the Sublime Porte of Selim III, Sultan of Turkey.”

Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, around 1788 (Wikipedia Commons).

What was Elgin’s primary motivation to “collect”? At the hearing of the Select Committee of the British House of Commons in 1816, Elgin stated that he had wanted “to make that appointment beneficial to the progress of the Fine Arts in Great Britain.”[7] The idea to use the diplomatic mission for exploration of Greek art and architecture was planted by Elgin’s architect, Thomas Harrison, who was renovating his house Broomhall in Scotland.[8] He also stated in his correspondence that he worked “towards procuring a knowledge of the Arts of Greece, and rescuing some of their remains from ruin.”[9] These sentences became Elgin’s mantra, although at first his goals were not to remove the original sculptures, but to document the state of sculptures and architecture.

Before he left England in September 1799, in accordance with the diplomatic tradition at the time, Elgin had chosen his embassy staff. The first were personal secretaries, the 22-year-olds John Philip Morier (1776–1853) and William Richard Hamilton (1777–1859).[10] The essential for what would become Elgin Marbles was Elgin’s chaplain Philip Hunt (1772–1838).[11] Elgin was also thinking of his side adventure and wanted to hire English artists, including the young J.M.W. Turner, to take plaster casts and make accurate architectural drawings, but he could not afford them on his budget.

During his ‘layover’ in Palermo, Elgin consulted a fellow Scottish ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples and famous antiquarian, William Hamilton (1731–1803). He suggested hiring Italian artists for his planned works in Athens. Therefore, in Messina he met with a 48-year-old landscape painter Giovanni Battista Lusieri. He made a special contract with him to lead the team of artists in Athens.[12] After Elgin sailed ahead, Lusieri and Elgin’s secretary Hamilton went to look for two other artists, an architect and a cast maker, in Naples and Rome.[13] However, in the end, instead of two they hired five artists and there were six people in the artists’ team with Lusieri at the helm.[14]

Those truly were trying times for the art community, because, three years earlier, Napoleon collected many works of art and took them to Louvre. The revolutionaries believed that they represented the superior civilization and that they had the right to confiscate art from neighboring lands. Special commissioners went abroad to choose the works and send them to France. For instance, in 1794, the commander that took the first convoy of paintings from Austrian Netherlands (Belgium), said that these artworks were “now saved in the homeland of art and spirit, in the homeland of freedom and holy equality, in the French republic.”[15]

Engraving of the triumphal entry of the monuments and animals from 1798. In the forefront are four Horses of Saint Mark, also known as the Triumphal Quadriga, from Venice, where they were bought in 1204 after crusaders took it from Constantinople.

Elgin came to Constantinople on 6 November 1799. In the first months of his tenure, Elgin got to know the modus operandi in the East. He received several gifts from several officials that he had to reciprocate. In just two weeks after his arrival, he spent well over £7,000 – his year’s salary was estimated at £6,600.[16] Contrary to what he had hoped, his medical condition worsened drastically. He had constant headaches because of the “rheumatism” and was treated with leaches and mercury.[17] In August 1800, Lusieri’s artistic team arrived in Athens.[18]

In 1800, Athens was a rather small town with around 10,000 inhabitants of Greek, Albanian and Turkish origin. The civil authority was in the hands of the Turkish governor or Voivode,[19] the military power was vested in military governor or Disdar on Acropolis. Acropolis was a military fortress occupied by the Turkish soldiers and their families. At the end of the eighteenth century, the art market in Athens was commanded by French antiquarian Louis-François-Sébastien Fauvel. Comte de Choiseul-Gouffier, a French ambassador in Constantinople, stationed Fauvel in Athens in the 1780s as his agent with permission to make casts, draw and procure as many original sculptures as possible to bring to France.[20] Some fifteen years later, Elgin and Lusieri will have a similar relation.

Special permits were required for any works in the city or Acropolis. Occasionally, Lusieri managed to get these permits with gifts or bribes.[21] The artists could visit Acropolis, but they could not measure or draw, since these objects were of a “military nature.”[22] However, Napoleon’s plans again indirectly influenced Elgin’s plans. The British intelligence informed Elgin that the French were planning to invade Greece and Elgin informed the Ottomans, who sounded the alarm. Disdar in Athens prohibited Lusieri to work on Acropolis.[23] Lusieri and Hunt knew that they can breach this “blockade” only with a convincing firman, an Ottoman royal or governmental decree from Constantinople.

Firman and Its Implementation

At the same time as these problems started in Athens, the British assembled the army to defeat the French army in Egypt. In the middle of June 1801, the united forces of the British and the Ottoman Empire bested the French at Cairo.[24] Elgin got his (second) firman good two weeks later, on 6 July. These events are unquestionably tied, considering the time needed for the news to reach Constantinople. Even Elgin himself said that there was no real progress with the firman until the Ottomans started to shower them with gifts.[25]

Elgin started negotiating with the Ottoman officials for a new firman even before the final victory in Egypt. Elgin was represented by the “first Dragoman,” Bartholomew Pisani, the official translator and interpreter of the British embassy. During these negotiations, Hunt wrote a memorandum and stated the main aims of the new firman. The stress was on the original Elgin goals: making casts, drawing and measuring. There was, however, a new request that is to excavate and a “liberty to take away any sculptures or inscriptions which do not interfere with the works or walls of the Citadel.”[26]

On 6 July, Pisani wrote to Elgin that he got the firman and translated it into Italian for him and Hunt.[27] Firman was addressed to Voivode and Cadi in Athens. It was signed by the highest representative of the Porte in Constantinople at the time, kaymakam Seged Abdullah, the deputy of the Grand Vizier Kör Yusuf Ziyaüddin, who led the Ottoman army in Egypt. Firman closely followed Hunt’s memorandum – it was more or less a translation into the official Ottoman language. Moreover, the caveat about not interfering with the defensive features of the Turkish fortress on the Acropolis was gone.[28]

Elgin’s firman is ambiguous in key point. It states that they could make plaster casts, draw, measure, excavate “and when they wish to take away some pieces of stone with old inscriptions, and figures, that no opposition be made.”[29] The firman did not state they could remove sculptures from buildings; the whole sentiment was towards taking away the excavated artifacts. Even Elgin himself had no intention of grand removal of sculptures, as is evident from his instructions.[30] That they finally started to remove the sculptures was the result of unpredictable events, in the center of which was chaplain Philip Hunt.

Hunt was the one who carried the firman to Athens and implement its “wide” interpretation. As is evident from the wording of the firman, it was delivered directly with the highest representative of the Porte, Raschid Aga.[31] On Wednesday evening, 22 July 1801, they reached Athens. Hunt promptly called Voivode and handed him the firman. When he read the firman, Voivode “became submissive in the extremest degree” and sent for Disdar’s son, who was supposed to succeed his dying father. Disdar’s son came “barefooted and trembling,” but Raschid Aga mercilessly exiled him. Hunt intervened and reached his pardon “on promise of his future good conduct.”[32]

Works on the Acropolis

After this meeting, Hunt started to (ab)use his favorable position. Lusieri’s team was granted free access, without payment, to Acropolis, from sunrise to sunset. Hunt hired 200 to 300 Greek workers that picked up several inscriptions from the grounds, swept the ruins and started excavating.[33] The crucial event happened on 31 July 1801. Hunt asked the Voivode for permission to take down a metope directly from the Parthenon. So, the team, consisting of a carpenter, five sailors and twenty Greeks, climbed on the Parthenon and with the help of cranes and ropes took down the first metope.[34]

Parthenon at the end of July 1801; platform in front of the first metope to be lowered, a ladder in the background and workers between the pillars. Watercolor by William Gell; British Museum).

As the first metope came down, the genie was out of the bottle. Now everybody was on board, the Turks and the Greeks participated in the action. Elgin’s team handsomely paid the workers for potential finds, so Hunt reported to Elgin that “there was not an individual, either among the Officers of the Porte, or the Greeks of the City, who did not seem to vie with each other in gratifying your wishes.”[35] Even the authorities, from Voivode to Archbishop, helped them with issuing ‘local’ permits to finish their works. Elgin was exhilarated, as it was apparent that his effort “now seems to promise a success beyond our most ardent hopes.”[36]

Quickly after removing the first metope, Lusieri wrote to Elgin that the Turkish military garrison had been destroying the monuments.[37] Therefore, Lusieri was “sure that in half a century there will not remain one stone on another. It would be well, my Lord, to ask for all that is left, or else to do all that is possible to prevent their going on in this fashion.”[38] Henceforward, Elgin actively aided the works from Constantinople and even sent them a dozen special saws to remove the frieze from the marble blocks.[39] Elgin also encouraged the removal of sculptures, as he noted: “I should wish to have, of the Acropolis, examples in the actual object, of each thing, and architectural ornament.”[40]

Hunt’s other task was to check the condition of the Turkish fortresses in Greece, so he left Athens on 2 August 1801. During that time, he visited many sites and obtained additional “souvenirs” for Elgin. In Mycenae, he even wanted to take down the famous Lion Gate, but, (un)fortunately, it was too far from the sea and the transfer of so heavy stones would be impossible. As Hunt was absent from Athens, his post was briefly filled by Captain Thomas Lacy. Although he was ecstatic to leave Egypt, Lacy felt he was going to Athens “to plunder temples and commit sacrilege, a proper finish to my diplomatic career.”[41] Even Lusieri was getting nervous, as the Parthenon would soon be without the metopes and frieze. He wrote to Elgin about the “barbarisms that I have been obliged to commit in your service.”[42]

In the spring of 1802, Elgin visited Athens and was pleased with the work that Lusieri and Hunt did. In the ten months since Hunt came with the firman, they acquired almost half of what would later become Elgin Marbles. Although Voivode and Disdar were compensated with gifts or bribes, they got anxious and were afraid that they would have to answer for their actions some time in the future. Therefore, in June 1802, Elgin went back to Constantinople to address these concerns.[43] In the fall 1802, he got additional firmans from the Sublime Porte that affirmed the legality of their actions. In October 1802, Lusieri handed these firmans over to Voivode and Disdar to calm them down.[44]

In January 1803, Elgin was allowed to end the “Embassy Extraordinary,” and left Constantinople for London.[45] He decided to go through France, despite being warned about the risks. Meanwhile, the “Definitive Treaty of Peace” of Amiens from 1802 was annulled, and on 18 May 1803, the war was declared once again. Napoleon issued a special decree that declared all British men on the territory of the French republic prisoners of war. Elgin mistakenly thought that he would be released quickly. Even the French Foreign Secretary Talleyrand tried to negotiate his release, but Napoleon was unwavering. Elgin later even stated that he could gain his freedom by selling the collection to Napoleon.[46]

After 1803, Lusieri stayed in Athens by himself. On leaving, Elgin disbanded the team of artists but Lusieri. Lusieri and Fauvel found themselves in fierce dispute for the collections of their masters. In 1804, after several protests by the French, the Ottoman officials forbade the further removals of sculptures from the buildings. Next summer, Lusieri got a letter from the British embassy that he was forbidden from taking away sculptures. Elgin’s successor, William Drummond, was against the ‘artistic ambitions’ of his predecessor. Now, Lusieri could collect only vases, coins and minor antiquities, so he started excavating again. In October 1805, the Voivode forbade all further excavations and that was the end of Lusieri’s works on the Acropolis.[47]

With the removal of the sculptures from Parthenon, true troubles only started, as collection had to be transported to England. The wait and loading on the ships were really nerve-racking and long-lasting processes for both sides. Because of the war, no ship could afford any ‘dead weight.’ On the other hand, Elgin and Lusieri knew that any delay with the transfer was dangerous, as Fauvel worked tirelessly to acquire these sculptures and send them to France, even though he was facing the same obstacle, i.e., lacking a proper vessel.[48]

The first larger part of the Elgin Marbles arrived in London in January 1804.[49] In Athens, the second large part of Elgin’s collection was still waiting for the transport. Elgin and Lusieri tried tirelessly to transport the collection. Lusieri loaded the statues on a private ship, but at the last moment the order from the Porte prevented its departure. The dispute moved to Constantinople. The Ottomans were not pleased with their French allies, so on 18 February 1810, with a new firman, they allowed the transfer of the sculptures.[50] On 26 March 1810, the ship sailed to Malta; most of the collection came to London in May 1812.[51]

Northeastern part of Parthenon after the removal of the metopes and frieze around 1810.

Contemporaneous Responses to Elgin’s Efforts

In June 1806, after seven years abroad, Elgin came home. Even before the embassy, he was in debt, but now the debt was colossal. If he returned in 1803, he would arguably be reimbursed in total, but now he only got a part of his expenses.[52] His former associates, except Hamilton, abandoned him. Elgin’s collection was moved into the building at the corner of Park Lane and Piccadilly. The collection opened to the public in June 1807 and Hamilton acted as the first curator of “Elgin Marbles.”[53]

The art community was thrilled. Most of them became Elgin’s supporters, as they emphasized the priceless value of these sculptures. Park Lane became the center of gravity for artists. Sculptor John Flaxman noted that Elgin’s pieces were far better than Italian replicas of the Greek works collected in Louvre by Napoleon. Hamilton and Elgin found many new ways to promote the collection. In this ‘museum,’ they even organized some boxing matches. In June 1808, fighter Robert Gregson stood naked for two hours between statues in different poses, so the artists and visitors could compare the ancient bodies with the modern.[54]

Elgin’s museum at Park Lane in 1810. Hamilton sent this sketch with a note on the back of it to Lusieri in Athens to show to his friend how they appreciated Parthenon sculptures in London.

Elgin quickly realized that the response to his collection was not all good. The first hostile feedback came from Richard Payne Knight, the leading member of the Society of Dilettanti, a very influential amateur organization of nobles and scholars that supported the research of the Classical art. Ten days after Elgin returned from captivity, they met at a public dinner. Although he could not have seen the collection at the time, as it was still closed in the crates, this did not stop him from stating that “you have lost your labour, my Lord Elgin; your Marbles are overrated; they are not Greek, they are Roman of the time of Hadrian.”[55] Elgin was not ready for that unfounded statement and it quickly spread through London.

But the hardest hit came unexpectedly from a young and at the time unknown poet. George Gordon Noel Byron cemented Elgin’s image as a plunderer of ancient art. In 1809, even before he left for Greece, the 21-years-old Byron wrote a satirical poem English Bards and Scotch Reviewers and criticized Elgin and his collection.[56] Then, Byron went on his infamous Grand Tour and for Christmas 1809 came to Athens, where he stayed until 1811. At the time, Lusieri and Fauvel were still competing for their masters.[57]

Byron lifted the criticism to the emotional level of romantic nationalism. Elgin did not just ruin and rob the monument, but he ruined and robbed the Greek people. After centuries of repression, the Greeks were searching for their identity, as Byron presented in the Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, published in March 1812. Practically overnight, the book became a bestseller. The first edition of 500 copies was sold out in three days and the editor made a profitable decision by issuing several editions with thousands of copies.[58]

The attack on Elgin was in the second Canto. Harold sat among the ruins of the Parthenon and was terrified by the desecration. He contemplated that both Turks and Goths plundered, but nothing in comparison with Elgin who had “His mind as barren and his heart as hard.”[59] At the same time, it was Britain’s fault: “The ocean queen, the free Britannia, bears / The last poor plunder from a bleeding land.”[60] Pilgrimage was a political poem and Byron made a connection between the modern and ancient Greeks, without considering the 2000 years of history between them. Thus, the Philhellenism was born in the West.[61]

Soon after the Pilgrimage, Byron published the Curse of Minerva. This poem was specifically ‘dedicated’ to Elgin and his desecration of Parthenon. It was written at the ‘crime scene,’ in Athens. Elgin would be “loath’d in life, nor pardon’d in the dust.”[62] This happened, as later his name became synonymous with the cultural plunder. In the middle of the nineteenth century, in France there was a new pejorative neologism elginism as a term for “the taking of cultural treasures, often from one country to another (usually to a wealthier one).”[63] Even in Greece the tide was turning. In 1813, someone engraved the following statement on Erechtheum: “QUOD NON FECERUNT GOTI, HOC FECERUNT SCOTI.”[64]

Even in England they were not in favor of Elgin’s actions anymore. The outrage was prevalent and ambassador was marked as a plunderer. John Chetwood Eustace, author of the Classical Tour through Italy stated that Elgin’s actions were “a crime against all ages and generations.”[65] The stain was so persistent that in 1860 his son James Bruce, the 8th lord Elgin, was connected with a scandal of a “(New) Elgin Marbles,” as the contemporary caricature phrased it.[66] Younger Elgin was appointed an ambassador to China. At the end of the second Opium War in 1860, he gave the order to burn down the old Summer Palace in Beijing as a retribution against the Chinese. The longevity of bad reputation outlived Elgin himself, as Byron had predicted.

Caricature for the “(New) Elgin Marbles” (satirical weekly magazine Punch, or The London Charivari, 24 November 1860).

Selling the Marbles Short

Elgin did not know what to do with the collection, as his debt was growing and collection’s maintenance was not cheap. In 1809, he had to close his ‘museum,’ because he could not find a curator, after Hamilton had accepted the post of a Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Even in the public, the idea that the government should buy the collection was gaining ground.[67] In 1811, Elgin anonymously published an account of his actions, A Memorandum on the subject of the Earl of Elgin’s Pursuits in Greece, to further his cause and justify his efforts in Greece.[68]

In 1811, Hamilton started negotiations with the British government. Elgin estimated that the costs “exceeded considerably £62,440.”[69] However, Prime Minister Spencer Perceval in return offered only £30,000. Elgin declined it by saying that his debt was “not less than £90,000.”[70] In retrospect, he should have taken the deal, as he would lower his debt, but still have the second part of the collection that arrived in May 1812. He had to move the collection again, to Burlington House, where it was joined with the 68 crates of the second larger part. After these sculptures stood still for over 2200 years on the Acropolis, they now moved four times in eight years.[71]

Hamilton and Elgin negotiated with the Trustees of the British Museum, if they could house the collection, but they denied housing a collection that did not belong to the museum.[72] After the Battle of Waterloo, another Treaty of Paris was signed. Hamilton played a key role in negotiating the repatriation of the appropriated art in Louvre. Antonio Canova, the greatest Italian neoclassical sculptor, who was sent to Paris by the Pope, was very grateful to Hamilton. Canova visited London and praised Elgin’s collection. Nevertheless, Payne Knight still wanted to thwart Elgin and threatened to pass the law that the collection should not be sold or exported, which lowered its price. When the Bavarian Prince Ludwig became interested to buy the collection, it finally awoke the sense of British pride.[73]

It became a contested issue, and on 23 February 1816, the debate was held in the House of Commons. The MPs agreed that they should avoid any unnecessary expenses considering the state of the country. 1816 was the “Year Without a Summer” because the eruption of the volcano Tambora in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) lead to an extremely low temperatures in Europe and consequently to crop failures. However, they knew it was a unique opportunity. The MPs emphasized that ambassador could only acquire the sculptures, because of the power of the superpower behind him. Because he gained it during his time as an ambassador, it should not belong to him, but to the English people. In the end, they formed a Select Committee to address these questions.[74]

Caricature on Elgin Marbles and a critique of “wasting money” while people starve, 10 June 1816 (caricature by George Cruikshank; British Museum).

Elgin was preparing for one of the last ‘trials’ in his life, the hearing in front of the Select Committee. In late February and early March, the Select Committee interrogated Elgin, Hamilton, Payne Knight, Hunt and others. The result was the mentioned report, published on 25 March 1816.[75] Elgin was exonerated from the accusations of plunder, as he was acting with the full knowledge and cooperation of the Ottoman authorities. Then, they asked a question of who was the rightful owner, Elgin or the government, and concluded that it was him. They also acknowledged that it was appropriate for the public display.

Now came the issue of price. After the heated debate in the House of Commons, the representatives voted and, with 82 votes for and 30 against, decided to purchase the whole collection for £35,000. Elgin, one month before his 50th birthday, reluctantly accepted the offer because he had no other alternative. He and his heirs became the regular members of the Trustees of the British Museum. The government also pledged that they would “keep and exhibit the collection together.” One of the conditions that the British government agreed to was that the collection would carry his family name, i.e., the Elgin Marbles or Elgin Collection.[76] Because Elgin’s name became synonymous with cultural pillaging, the British Museum is now using the term Parthenon Sculptures in public.

Legal Arguments and the Elgin Marbles

When considering legal arguments surrounding the Elgin Marbles, old proverb becomes evident: two lawyers, three opinions. It is a complex international and cultural heritage issue, so I shall present a synopsis of the arguments. The Greek repatriation request rests on two arguments.[77] The first states that Elgin took the sculptures against the law and, therefore, the Marbles were never the legal property of the British Museum. The second argument states that although the collection may have been legally procured by the British Museum, it should be returned on moral grounds. Although these statements are not mutually exclusive, they fundamentally question the legality and legitimacy of Elgin’s efforts, respectively.

Does the British Museum have the property right to the Elgin Marbles? The British government bought the collection from Elgin in 1816 and immediately gave it to the British Museum. Therefore, the right of the British museum to the collection is exactly the same as it was of Elgin’s, following the rule of nemo plus juris ad alium transferre potest quam ipse habet.[78] So, Elgin’s right to Elgin Marbles should be reevaluated. What we want to know is, whether the Ottoman authorities could allow the removal, and if Elgin actually got the permission to take the sculptures down and away.

Could the Ottomans allow Elgin the removal of sculptures in Greece? The Sublime Porte in Constantinople was de jure and de facto ruler of Greece in the early 1800s. Their authority was enforced in Porte’s name by the Ottoman officials in Athens. These officials were the supreme civil commander (Voivode), supreme judge (Cadi) and supreme military commander (Disdar). Following the international law of the time, the decrees and permissions of the Ottoman officials were lawful. After the universally accepted rule of legality, we should also not retroactively change the laws. So, the Ottomans could give Elgin the right to remove the sculptures.[79]

Did the Ottomans really give Elgin the firman and what was he allowed to do? In the summer of 1801, Elgin got a firman at the Sublime Porte in Constantinople,[80] directed to the local authorities in Athens, the Voivode and Cadi. The crucial part of the firman was relatively vague and could be interpreted very broadly, but even Elgin did not believe that it gave him permission to scale the monument and take away the sculptures. The taking away part was circumstantial, and was meant for the excavated artifacts, not the sculptures on the buildings. So, Elgin and his agents arguably broke the law, or better said overstepped their authorization.[81]

It would seem that Elgin illegally procured the Marbles and did not have the property right to the collection. However, the Ottomans later authorized Elgin’s actions at least two more times. The first time was in 1802, when Elgin requested a new firman in Constantinople for Disdar and Voivode in Athens. In 1810, another firman was procured by Elgin’s successor, ambassador Adair, and it allowed Lusieri to transport the last major part of the collection to England. Thus, the Ottomans arguably gave Elgin three firmans for his actions in Athens.

The other highly problematic part concerning Elgin’s acquisition was the use of gifts, bribes and threats. Many of the gifts were given in ceremonial fashion, but some were also given as bribes.[82] This argument is tricky because giving briberies was modus operandi at the time and Ottoman officials often requested bribes, as the British MPs realized.[83] Lusieri’s bills for the works in Athens, today in the property of Elgin’s heirs, show that well over one quarter of all the expenses was used to bribe officials. For instance, in the first year and a half of the removals, Disdar received bribes in the worth of his 35 yearly salaries.[84]

There is another catch-22. If Greeks want to get the Elgin Marbles back, they have to convince the Board of Trustees of the British Museum. The British government noticed this ‘loophole,’ so it put another check in the British Museum Act of 1963. Among others, the Trustees are forbidden to permanently ‘dispose’ of a work of art, except in “highly exceptional cases.”[85] What exactly are these “highly exceptional cases”? It is best exemplified with the example from 2005. The British Museum, that is the Board of Trustees, authorized the return of the four Old Master drawings to the heirs of the family killed by the Nazis. Shortly after the war, these drawings were bought for pennies by the British Museum. The Board of Trustees naturally said that works of art, looted by the Nazis, are “highly exceptional cases” and that they would not set a precedent for other collections.

However, the British government did not share that sentiment, so they went to Her Majesty’s High Court of Justice in England. The attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, asked the High Court to rule against the return of these drawings to the heirs of original owners, because it could create a legal way for Greece to pursue its claim to the Elgin Marbles. The vice chancellor, Sir Andrew Morritt, ruled that the British Museum Act, which “protects the collections for posterity,” cannot be overridden by a “moral obligation” to return works known to have been plundered.[86] Only a legislation change or amendment could amend that, but there is no political will in Britain for that at the moment.[87]

In the last 200 years, there have been two very contrasting historical depictions of Elgin. The first shows him as a cruel, manipulating and deceitful plunderer of helpless Greece. The second depicts him as a fallen hero, a saint and a savior of the best Greek art. The truth is undoubtedly more complex. Elgin wanted to raise the level of art in his homeland, and prevent that the sculptures would get into the French hands. He probably did expect some gain, at least enough to cover his costs. So, on the one hand, it is naïve to believe he was led only by high and altruistic reasons; on the other hand, it is cynical to state he was motivated solely by his own self-interest.

Discussion – Repatriation and Universal Museums

The repatriation requests for the Elgin Marbles are not new. On 7 June 1816, even before the Elgin Marbles got to the British Museum, the representative of the British Parliament, Hugh Hammersley, demanded an eventual repatriation of the sculptures, when Greece stabilized. The first repatriation requests from Greece came in the 1830s, when the new independent Greek government consolidated. Greece does not demand all of the Elgin Marbles, but mainly the Parthenon sculptures. British Museum has more than 75 out of the 165 meters of the original frieze, 15 out of the 92 metopes, 17 figures from the pediments and many architectural parts of the Parthenon. Most of the remaining Parthenon sculptures are in Athens, and a few in Paris, Copenhagen, Vatican, Vienna, Würzburg and München.

But, let’s first look at the bigger picture and go back to the Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums from 2002. The Declaration “firmly discourages” illegal traffic in archaeological, artistic, and ethnic objects. Then it presents two main arguments to keep the collections in the large museums. Firstly, the objects, acquired in the past, must be viewed “in the light of different sensitivities and values, reflective of that earlier era.” Secondly, these artifacts have become integral “part of the museums that have cared for them, and by extension part of the heritage of the nations which house them.”[88]

That this “universal” Declaration would not be universally accepted quickly became obvious. George Abungu, Former Director General of the National Museums of Kenya, wrote that the Declaration was “a way of refusing to engage in dialogue around the issue of repatriation.” It was reminiscent to the rhetoric of the golden times of colonialism. Abungu emphasized that he did not see the basis, on which some museums would be categorized as universal. Are these museums universal because of their grandeur or the richness of the collections? Are universal museums only in Europe and America?[89]

Among the first eighteen signed directors of the museums, which are usually the targets of the repatriation requests, there were no museums outside Europe or USA. There are two reasons behind the exclusion of other “universal” museums. Following the first, the signatories did not even think about the other (not western) museums, when they established this exclusive club for keeping the artifacts. Following the other, they understood that other museums would never sign such a patronizing document.[90] Geoffrey Lewis, the then Chair of the ICOM Ethics Committee, stated that the true intention of the Declaration was to impose more immunity to the repatriation requests and that this document does not represent the international museum community.[91]

There were also some advocates of the Declaration, unsurprisingly in the administration of the large museums. Peter-Klaus Schuster, the then General Director of the State Museums of Berlin, emphasized the role of the large museums in cultivating a better understanding of different civilizations. He put forward a legitimate question about the ownership of the cultural heritage. To whom does the Greek Attic vase, which was exported to Etruria 2500 years ago, then legally excavated by Vatican agents, sold to the Prussian king and lastly put in the public museum 180 years ago, belong? According to Schuster, in the large museums it at least receives well-deserved attention.[92]

Neil MacGregor talked about the interconnectedness of the world and the role of the universal museums as promoters of understanding.[93] In July 2004, after the harsh feedback against the Declaration, he explained that the idea of the universal museum was founded on the 250 years of tradition. Universal admiration for the old civilizations would not be so deep, if the artifacts were not on display for the broader public. We should recognize that museums serve not only the citizens of one nation but the citizens of all nations. According to MacGregor, if we limit that, we would hurt the whole humanity.[94] Mark O’Neill, the Head of Glasgow Museums, quickly responded and emphasized the contradictions of those that supported the concept of the universal museums. The enlightenment museums were exclusive, elitist and served the needs of a small group of people. For O’Neill, any idea of presenting the collections to the general public was unknown at the time.[95]

The directors of the large museums are facing an existential crisis, as they are the targets of the growing number of repatriation requests for their collections. Some of the latter are ‘crucial’ for their existence, or at least this is what they think. With the establishment of the “universal museums,” they tried to convince the public about the “narrow-minded nationalistic” little museums that do not see beyond their own borders. They tried to establish the false dichotomy between universal values of the large museums and particular interests of little museums, but the true intention was quickly revealed.[96] Because of the harsh critics, they later tried to change the name into the “world/global museum” or “encyclopedic museum.”[97]

In 1970, UNESCO signed the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. While definitely a step in the right direction, many museums consider it as a terminus post quem. This convention is interpreted by some museums as the legalization of the collections or artifacts that have been dubiously acquired before 1970. Illegally excavated and exported cultural treasures are still the subject of trade, and many large museums are caught red-handed.[98]

We have a few examples of successful repatriations. Italy decided to return the obelisk from Axum, which Mussolini took, after he had conquered Ethiopia. The obelisk was moved to Rome and in 1937, when the Fascists celebrated the fifteenth anniversary of the fascist March on Rome, it was ‘consecrated.’ In 1947, Italy obliged itself to return it, but the things got complicated. In 2005, Italy finally loaded the heavy obelisk on the plane and repatriated it to Ethiopia. Meanwhile, in 1980, Axum was inscribed on UNESCO World Heritage List.[99]

Figure 8. The Obelisk of Axum in Rome’s Porta Capena Square during the military parade on the Festa della Repubblica in 2002, before its repatriation to Ethiopia in 2005 (Wikipedia Commons).

How many objects should be returned? The supporters of repatriation usually do not request for the whole collections, except in cases of human remains. The idea that large (western) museums should identify and return the objects has come to the forefront after the World War II and the process of decolonization. The European colonies in Africa and Asia declared independence and were building their own national and cultural identities with proper symbols. ICOM leaders are against the broad repatriation of the artifacts and have taken a stand for a “reasonable repatriation.”

Should, then, the Elgin Marbles be returned to Athens? My answer is crystal clear: I do not know. The question of cultural heritage was always ferocious; many times, especially with famous works of art, it is also the question of prestige. When considering the works of art and cultural heritage we have to account for many factors that I have not even mentioned, such as technical, financial, future prospects etc. But I do know that one-sided and patronizing declarations that try to sweep the problem under the rug, will not lead to the solution. There needs to be a rational dialogue and a reasonable repatriation.

[1] ICOM News, No. 1, 2004, 4.

[2] Alexandra Rowson, The Universal Museum: a neo-colonial device? (Southampton: University of Southampton, 2011), 17–19.

[3] On 14 May 1954, in Hague, UNESCO adopted the (Hague) Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. In preamble, it states that the “damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind, since each people makes its contribution to the culture of the world.”

[4] The fundamental book-length article, rich with primary sources, was written at the centenary of the arrival of Elgin Marbles in London by the Keeper of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum, Arthur H. Smith, “Lord Elgin and his Collection,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 36 (1916): 163–372. William St. Clair, Lord Elgin & the Marbles: The controversial history of the Parthenon sculptures, 3rd edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998). Jacob Rothenberg, Descensus Ad Terram: Acquisition and Reception of the Elgin Marbles (New York: Garland Publishing, 1977).

[5] J. Christopher Herold, Bonaparte in Egypt (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, 1962).

[6] Sydney Checkland, The Elgins, 1766–1917: a tale of aristocrats, proconsuls and their wives (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1988), 1–26.

[7] Report from the Select Committee of the House of Commons on the Earl of Elgin’s Collection of Sculptured Marbles, &c. (London, 1816), 2. Henceforth Report.

[8] As he himself stated in (anonymously) published Memorandum on the Subject of the Earl of Elgin’s Pursuits in Greece (London, 1811 and 1815), 1–3. Henceforth Memorandum.

[9] Elgin to the Foreign Secretary, Lord Hawkesbury, 13 January 1803; after Report, xxiv.

[10] In 1801, Hamilton played a key role at acquiring probably the most famous artifact in the British Museum today – the Rosetta Stone.

[11] St. Clair, Lord Elgin, 5–10.

[12] Contract between Elgin and Lusieri, 18 October 1799; after Smith, “Lord Elgin,” 168.

[13] St. Clair, Lord Elgin, 20–27.

[14] Smith, “Lord Elgin,” 168–177. St. Clair, Lord Elgin, 25–27.

[15] Eugène Müntz, “Les annexions de collections d’art ou de bibliothèques et leur role dans les relations internationales, Principalement pendant le Révolution Française,” Revue d’histoire diplomatique 9 (1895): 375–393; here 377.

[16] Checkland, The Elgins, 38.

[17] St. Clair, Lord Elgin, 40–41.

[18] Report, 33.

[19] Ironically, an Old Slavic word for warlord.

[20] St. Clair, Lord Elgin, 63.

[21] Metin M. Coşgel et al., “Crime and Punishment in Ottoman Times: Corruption and Fines,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 43 (2013): 353–376, here 370–373.

[22] Report, 140. Lusieri to Elgin, 16 May 1801; after Smith, “Lord Elgin,” 185–186.

[23] Logotheti to Elgin, 16 May 1801; after Smith, “Lord Elgin,” 189.

[24] Piers Mackesy, British Victory in Egypt: The End of Napoleon’s Conquest (London: Tauris Parke, 2010).

[25] Report, 2–3.

[26] Hunt’s memorandum, dated 1 July 1801; after Smith, “Lord Elgin,” 190.

[27] Pisani to Elgin, 6 July 1801; after St. Clair, Lord Elgin, 88. Report, xxiv–xxvi. The Italian translation was in the property of the Hunt family and was discovered by St. Clair in the 1990s. St. Clair, Lord Elgin, 337–341. Dyfri Williams, “Lord Elgin’s firman,” Journal of the History of Collections 21 (2009): 1–28.

[28] St. Clair, Lord Elgin, 88–89.

[29] “…e quando volessero portar via qualche pezzi di pietra con vechie inscrizioni, e figure, non sia fattà lor’oposizione…” After St. Clair, Lord Elgin, 340.

[30] Elgin to Lusieri, 10 July 1801; after Smith, “Lord Elgin,” 191–192. Lady Elgin to her parents, 9 July 1801; after Nisbet, Letters of Mary Nisbet, 97.

[31] Some sort of an enforcer of the Porte: “a kind of ad hoc man, to see that the contents of the firman are obeyed.” Hunt to Hamilton, 8 July 1801; after Smith, “Lord Elgin,” 193. Williams, “Lord Elgin’s firman,” 8–12.

[32] Hunt to Elgin, 31 July 1801; after Smith, “Lord Elgin,” 195–196.

[33] St. Clair, Lord Elgin, 92–93.

[34] Hunt to Elgin, 31 July 1801; after Smith, “Lord Elgin,” 196.

[35] Hunt to Elgin, 21 August 1801; after Smith, “Lord Elgin,” 200.

[36] Elgin to Lusieri, 8 October 1801; after Smith, “Lord Elgin,” 201.

[37] St. Clair, Lord Elgin, 98–99.

[38] Lusieri to Elgin, 6 August 1801; after Smith, “Lord Elgin,” 198.

[39] St. Clair, Lord Elgin, 98–99.

[40] Elgin to Lusieri, 26 December 1801; after Smith, “Lord Elgin,” 207.

[41] Lacy to Hunt, 8 October 1801; after St. Clair, Lord Elgin, 101–102.

[42] Lusieri to Elgin, October 1802; after Smith, “Lord Elgin,” 236.

[43] St. Clair, Lord Elgin, 107–109.

[44] Lusieri to Elgin, 28 October 1802; after Smith, “Lord Elgin,” 235.

[45] St. Clair, Lord Elgin, 40–41, 109–110.

[46] Elgin to Lord Charles Long, 6 May 1811; after Report, vii–viii. Memorandum, 93–94.

[47] St. Clair, Lord Elgin, 132–139.

[48] St. Clair, Lord Elgin, 113.

[49] For the list of all the shipments of the Elgin Marbles see Smith, “Lord Elgin,” 292–294.

[50] Ambassador Adair to the Foreign Minister Wellesley, 27 February 1810; after Smith, “Lord Elgin,” 279.

[51] St. Clair, Lord Elgin, 155–161.

[52] St. Clair, Lord Elgin, 140–143.

[53] Smith, “Lord Elgin,” 294–299.

[54] St. Clair, Lord Elgin, 162–167.

[55] Benjamin Robert Haydon, The Autobiography and Journals of Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786–1846) (London: MacDonald, 1950), 244. See also Report, v. Society of Dilettanti, Specimens of Antient Sculpture, Aegyptian, Etruscan, Greek, and Roman: Selected from Different Collections in Great Britain, Vol. I (London: T. Bensley et al., 1809), xxxix.

[56] George Gordon Noel Byron, The Works of Lord Byron, ed. Ernest Hartley Coleridge, Vol. 1 (London: John Murray, 1903), 289–384; especially lines 1027–1034 and the corresponding footnote.

[57] St. Clair, Lord Elgin, 180–181.

[58] George Gordon Noel Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a Romaunt (London, 1812).

[59] Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, 67.

[60] Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, 67.

[61] St. Clair, Lord Elgin, 185–189.

[62] Byron, The Works of Lord Byron, 467.

[63] Matthew Taylor, s.v. “Elginism,” Encyclopaedia Britannica.

[64] Byron, The Works of Lord Byron, 463. Lord Elgin was from Scotland.

[65] John Chetwood Eustace, A tour through Italy (London: J. Mawman, 1813), 269–270.

[66] Punch, or The London Charivari, 24 November 1860.

[67] “…that Parliament should purchase, if possible, the entire collection, and build a well lighted museum to contain it.” G. Cumberland in Monthly Magazine, July 1808; after Smith, “Lord Elgin,” 302.

[68] Memorandum. It was based on the letter that Hunt wrote, while he was in captivity in France. He gave it over to Elgin, before they parted ways. Elgin to his mother, the Countess of Elgin, 13 January 1805; after Smith, “Lord Elgin,” 296.

[69] Smith, “Lord Elgin,” 310.

[70] Elgin to Prime Minister Spencer Perceval, 31 July 1811; after Smith, “Lord Elgin,” 312–313.

[71] St. Clair, Lord Elgin, 173–179.

[72] Smith, “Lord Elgin,” 319–324.

[73] St. Clair, Lord Elgin, 219–225.

[74] The summary of the debate in The Times, 24 February 1816.

[75] Report.

[76] British Museum Act of 1816.

[77] John Henry Merryman, “Thinking about the Elgin Marbles,” Michigan Law Review 83 (1985): 1880–1923. Contra David Rudenstine, “Did Elgin Cheat at Marbles?,” Nation, 29 May 2000.

[78] No one can transfer more rights (to another) than he himself has.

[79] Merryman, “Thinking about the Elgin Marbles,” 1897.

[80] Rudenstine, “Did Elgin Cheat at Marbles?” doubts about the existence of firman.

[81] Merryman, “Thinking about the Elgin Marbles,” 1897–1899.

[82] Rudenstine, “Did Elgin Cheat at Marbles?”

[83] Report.

[84] William St. Clair, “The Elgin Marbles: Questions of Authenticity and Accountability,” International Journal of Cultural Property 8 (1999): 391–521; here 401–03.

[85] British Museum Act of 1963.

[86] Press Assocciation, “Ruling tightens grip on Parthenon marbles,” The Guardian, 27 May 2005.

[87] Helena Smith, “Boris Johnson rules out return of Parthenon marbles to Greece,” The Guardian, 12 March 2021.

[88] ICOM News 1 (2004): 4.

[89] George Abungu, “The Declaration: A Contested Issue,” ICOM News 1 (2004): 5.

[90] Magnus Fiskesjö, “The global repatriation debate and the new “universal museums”,” The Handbook of Postcolonialism and Archaeology, eds. Jane Lydon, Uzma Z. Rizvi (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2010), 303–310; here 303.

[91] Geoffrey Lewis, “The Universal Museum: a Special Case?” ICOM News 1 (2004): 3.

[92] Peter-Klaus Schuster, “The Treasures of World Culture in the Public Museum,” ICOM News 1 (2004): 4–5.

[93] Neil MacGregor, “The British Museum,” ICOM News 1 (2004): 7.

[94] Neil MacGregor, “The whole world in our hands,” The Guardian, 24 July 2004.

[95] Mark O’Neill, “Enlightenment museums: universal or merely global?,” Museum and Society 2 (2004): 190–202.

[96] Magnus Fiskesjö, “Global Repatriation and »Universal« Museums,” Anthropology News 51 (2010): 10–12.

[97] Tom Flynn, The Universal Museum: a valid model for the 21st century? (London, 2012).

[98] Kate Fitz Gibbon, “Chronology of Cultural Property Legislation,” Who Owns the Past? Cultural Policy, Cultural Property, and the Law, ed. Kate Fitz Gibbon (London: Rutgers University Press, 2007), 3–8. Silvia Borelli, Federico Lenzerini (eds.), Cultural heritage, cultural rights, cultural diversity: new developments in international law (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2012).

[99] Ian Limbach, “Special Report: The Axum Obelisk Returns, but Some Still Grumble,” Archaeology 58 (2005).