Elgin Marbles Should Not Be Loaned Back to Greece Until British Museum’s Ownership Accepted: Historian

Elgin Marbles Should Not Be Loaned Back to Greece Until British Museum’s Ownership Accepted: Historian
Sections of the Elgin Marbles are displayed at he British Museum in London on Nov. 22, 2018. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Chris Summers
3/20/2023
Updated:
3/20/2023

One of the world’s leading historians has rejected claims the Elgin Marbles were illegally removed from the Parthenon in Athens and has recommended they not be loaned back to Greece unless they accept the British Museum’s ownership of the sculptures.

The Greek government has been campaigning for decades for the 2,500-year-old artefacts—sometimes referred to as the Parthenon Sculptures—to be returned to Athens, but the 1963 British Museum Act prevents objects being removed from its collection except in very limited circumstances.

Earlier this month UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said there were “no plans” to change the British Museum Act.

But the Chairman of the British Museum, George Osborne, a former chancellor of the Exchequer, has said he is exploring the possibility of a long-term loan back to Greece.

Sir Noel Malcolm, a senior research fellow at Oxford University’s All Souls College, has written a report (pdf) for the think tank Policy Exchange refuting claims the marbles were illegally removed by Lord Elgin between 1801 and 1805.

Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin, was appointed as Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in 1799 and held that position for four years.

Malcolm said Elgin was fascinated by ancient Greek architecture and requested the “liberty to take away any sculptures or inscriptions which do not interfere with the works or walls of the citadel” at the Parthenon in Athens.

Malcolm said this was granted in 1801—in a document known as a firman—by the Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul, who at the time ruled all of what is now Greece.

He said the original firman had not survived but a contemporaneous Italian translation stated Elgin should not be prevented from “carrying away some pieces of stone with old inscriptions, and figures.”

Malcolm said the sculptures were gradually shipped to England between 1803 and 1812 and displayed at the British Museum, where they attracted “great interest.”

A frieze that forms part of the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon in Athens, Greece, on display at the British Museum in London on Jan. 21, 2002. (Graham Barclay, BWP Media/Getty Images)
A frieze that forms part of the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon in Athens, Greece, on display at the British Museum in London on Jan. 21, 2002. (Graham Barclay, BWP Media/Getty Images)

British Museum Purchased Marbles From Lord Elgin for £35,000

Elgin, who had spent £74,000 bringing the marbles to England and was heavily in debt, sold them to the British Museum for £35,000 after a House of Commons select committee looked into the matter and an Act of Parliament in 1816 authorised the purchase.

The Elgin Marbles have remained on display at the British Museum for the last 200 years.

In his report Malcolm said, “Words such as ‘steal’, ‘loot’, ‘theft’ and ‘plunder’ appear quite often when demands for the return of the marbles to Athens are expressed,” but he said they were a misnomer as there was no doubt the sculptures were taken legally, with the agreement of the Ottoman authorities, who were the only legal government in Greece at the time.

He concluded: “Overall, the conclusion is inescapable that by all applicable legal standards at the time, including those in the field, which was then relatively undeveloped, of international law, the Ottoman Sultan was the legal ruler, and decisions made by his ministers and representatives had legal validity.”

Malcolm then examined the arguments about whether to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece to “restore the integrity of the original artwork.”

He pointed out: “We should note that there are many examples of hugely important Italian Renaissance artworks, such as complex altarpieces, that are now scattered between different churches and museums.

“Masaccio’s Pisa polyptych is to be found in Pisa, Vienna, Naples and London, Mantegna’s San Zeno altarpiece in Verona, Tours and Paris, and Signorelli’s Bichi polyptych in Paris, Berlin, Dublin, Glasgow, Toledo and Williamstown. In each of these cases, and in very many others, this state of affairs is just accepted as a fact of history,” he added.

He said it would be impossible to return the marbles back to their original position in the Parthenon and added, “Instead, the idea is to transfer the Marbles from one museum to another museum.”

“Certainly, they would be alongside other original sculptures, but this would still be very different from reassembling the original work of art, from which these two groups of sculptures have been removed and many other sculptures have been entirely lost,” Malcolm added.

Xi Jinping Weighed In on Greeks’ Side

The historian also points out that in 2019 Chinese leader Xi Jinping, on a visit to Athens, said he agreed with the Greeks that the Elgin Marbles were illegally held in Britain and said: ‘Not only will you have my support … we should work together. Because we have a lot of our own relics abroad, and we are trying as much as we can to bring these back home as soon as possible.”
Chinese leader Xi Jinping (L) and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis visit the cargo terminal of Chinese company Cosco in the Port of Piraeus, Greece, on Nov. 11, 2019. (Orestis Panagiotou/AFP via Getty Images)
Chinese leader Xi Jinping (L) and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis visit the cargo terminal of Chinese company Cosco in the Port of Piraeus, Greece, on Nov. 11, 2019. (Orestis Panagiotou/AFP via Getty Images)

Malcolm said the idea of a loan back to Greece might seem like a sensible compromise but he said it was deeply flawed.

He said, “It is possible to imagine a scenario in which the Greek government guarantees the return of the marbles from Athens after a one-year loan period, but the process of removal from the Acropolis Museum is then blocked by mass protests, leading the Greek authorities to say that their promise has fallen victim to force majeure.”

“Another possible scenario would involve legal action, taken by individuals or organisations in Greece. Such action might delay interminably the return of the marbles to London, or might well lead to a ruling by a Greek judge that they should not be returned at all,” Malcolm added.

Earlier this month, during a trip to San Diego, Sunak said: “The UK has cared for the Elgin Marbles for generations. Our galleries and museums are funded by taxpayers because they are a huge asset to this country. We share their treasures with the world, and the world comes to the UK to see them. The collection of the British Museum is protected by law, and we have no plans to change it.”