In 1801, Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, began his controversial removal of half the sculptures in the Parthenon. Greece at this time was occupied by the Ottoman Empire. In 1811, the Earl received a permit from the Ottoman sultan giving him permission to take the marble pieces. However, when the Earl was asked to present his permit, he had lost the original permit and only had an Italian copy. Following his excavation, the Earl fell on hard times. He lost half of his nose to an infection, his wife left him for his best friend, and he was forced to sell his collection of marbles to the British government for £35,000 to cover his divorce.
The British claim they have the right to keep the marbles. They believe they purchased the pieces legally, if the Earl’s permit was legitimate. The Earl was given permission by Greece’s occupied government at the time. The British argue that the marbles are safer in Britain, anyways. Greece is an unstable country and had nowhere safe to store the marbles for a long time. In addition, any court ruling stating that the marbles should be returned to Greece could affect the ownership cases for so many other artworks in museums with questionable ownership.
Greece responded by building the New Acropolis museum to properly house their ancient artifacts. These marbles are a part of Greek history and culture and the legality of their removal from the Parthenon is uncertain. It has not been proven that the Earl’s permit was even legitimate. Greece believes they would not be setting up any detrimental precedents because they are only asking for the marbles from the Parthenon and certain other precedents have already been set where stolen pieces were returned to their rightful owners. If the Parthenon marbles were reunited in Greece, they could be set up in a situation that more closely resembles their original context. The British Museum has not shown the same level of care for the marbles that Greece will. Greece has set up the New Acropolis with state-of-the-art technology to care for the marbles where the British have damaged them in cleaning sessions and endangered them in transportation. The British public even believes Greece has the right to their marbles, according to opinion polls.
Greece’s argument is just too strong to deny. Especially when these marbles were most likely illegally obtained to begin with. If, however, the Ottoman sultan’s permit is legitimate, the Ottoman Empire no longer exists and Greece is independent. Any past agreements made by the Ottomans are not relevant today. The British refusing to return the marbles is stubborn. They hold far more value to Greece than Britain. Also, it would be far more convenient for professionals studying Ancient Greek art for the pieces to be easily accessible in one country. Being able to see them in their original context holds more value than keeping them in Britain where they are less important.
– Bridget O’Hara
Kimmelman, Michael. “Elgin Marble Argument in a New Light.” The New York Times, June 2009.
McGuigan, Cathleen. “Romancing the Stones.” Newsweek, June 2009.