On his Law and Policy Blog I came across a post recently by the lawyer, David Allen Green, on the issue of who legally owns the Parthenon Marbles. It’s a topic in the news again this week with the Greek Prime Minister raising the issue with Boris Johnson during a visit to the UK to discuss bilateral relations. Johnson in typical ‘not me guv’ fashion stated that it was a matter for the British Museum: another lie! The original purchase of the marbles from Elgin was authorised by an Act of Parliament and so can only be undone with one.
On the issue of ownership, the British Museum position is simply stated as follows:
“Lord Elgin’s activities were thoroughly investigated by a Parliamentary Select Committee in 1816 and found to be entirely legal.”
David Allen Green’s blog provides a link to a fascinating article by an American academic lawyer called David Rudenstine that forensically examines this issue. I will summarise the paper here because it’s a lengthy but enthralling read and it makes me regret that I did not pursue a career in the law.
In 1801 Lord Elgin, then the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople had the the marble frieze and sculptures on the Parthenon removed and taken to England. This was the beginnings of his troubles as the endeavour led him to the verge of bankruptcy. By 1816 he decided to sell the marbles to the British government to be housed in the British Museum, just when the museum was rapidly expanding its collection of Classical artefacts.
In 1816 the House of Lords set up a Select Committee to enquire into the matter. Appearing before the Committee, Elgin was asked repeatedly whether he had any documentation proving his ownership and repeatedly he said ‘ no’. He claimed instead that in July 1801 he had received a document from the Ottoman government connected with the work he was undertaking on the Acropolis that entitled him to ‘draw, model and remove [items}’ as well as excavate in specific places. He had not however kept a copy of it.
Whilst in post in Constantinople Elgin retained as a secretary / chaplain a man called Philip Hunt, responsible for liaising with Elgin’s workmen through their supervisor, an Italian painter called Giovanni Battista Lusieri. It was Hunt who urged Elgin to get a detailed agreement from the Ottomans for the work on the Acropolis.
Hunt was also called to testify to the Select Committee in 1816 and in the course of giving evidence claimed he had an Italian translation of the original Ottoman document called a firman (an imperial decree issued by the Sultan), signed by the Grand Vizier (the Sultan’s chief minister). This clinched it for the Select Committee and their report to Parliament led to the government agreeing to purchase the marbles from Elgin.
There are some striking oddities about these documents. Evidence suggests that some sort of document was issued by the Ottoman authorities in July 1801. Yet no firman on this subject has ever been found in the Ottoman archives and no record of any dealing between Elgin and the Ottoman government on the subject have ever been found in the Foreign Office files. Legal ownership of the marbles therefore turns on this Italian document.
Hunt apparently asked for a literal translation of the Ottoman document, but received a translation (my italics). It begs the question as to why the translation was into Italian, a language that neither Elgin nor Hunt spoke. Hunt’s statement that it was because Italian was the lingua franca of the eastern Mediterranean is frankly incredible. The document’s introduction refers to it being conveyed to Athens by ‘N.N.’ which mystified people for many years, until legal experts pointed out that this stand for ‘non nullus’, ie someone. It’s a form of words often used in draft legal documents to indicate that a name will be inserted in the final draft.
Despite the findings in the Select committee report, the Italian document is not a firman as firmans are usually issued only by the Sultan. Only the Sultan could authorise anything to do with classical monuments in Ottoman lands.
Could this Italian document be a carefully contrived forgery cooked up by Elgin and Hunt working together? There was a two week gap between Elgin’s appearance before the Select Committee and Hunt’s. In his evidence to the Select Committee though, when he was asked repeatedly about documents proving his ownership, Elgin did not mention it. This suggests that he did not know of its existence. If they had forged a document, why did they not forge something that proved Elgin’s ownership unequivocally? The Italian ‘translation’ does not do this.
David Rudenstine’s conclusion is that the Italian document is a draft that Hunt, acting on behalf of Elgin, had drafted by Pisani a dragoman (interpreter and fixer) employed by Elgin to negotiate with the Ottoman authorities. It is not a translation of the original lost Ottoman document, but a draft request for the work on the Acropolis Elgin wanted the authorities to agree to.
The implication of this is that Elgin did not have any documentation proving that he owned the marbles and that the Select Committee was wrong to accept the Italian ‘translation’ as that document. As Elgin did not therefore legally own the marbles, he could not legally sell them to the British government. Rudenstine implies that the Select Committee jumped at the Italian document as the basis of Elgin’s for ownership and therefore his right to sell the marbles, without further forensic examination of the documentation story, because they were eager to acquire the marbles to display in the British Museum.
What a shabby story of misinformation by Hunt and Elgin and of collusion by Parliament! This story will never go away until the UK hands the marbles back to the country to which they belong and rights this longstanding wrong. That day may be getting closer.