Memorandum submitted by Dr Jeanette Greenfield
1. The issue of Return of Cultural Treasures
can be divided into that of:
(a) Historically removed objects; and
(b) The contemporary illicit art market.
1.1 "Return" need not relate specifically
to claims of wrongful taking. It can also mean "restoration",
"reinstatement", "rejuvenation", and "reunification".
"Return" is part of the wider movement of treasures.
Sometimes objects have "migrated" legitimately and sometimes
not. Some have been peacefully and uncontroversially bought. Some
have been transported through archaeological, missionary and colonial
expeditions. Always the movements have been a fascinating reflector
of human history.
1.2 Historically removed objects cannot
be returned under any contemporary legislation or convention,
as these have no retrospective effect. The supposition that "Return"
is a precedent for the return of everything is incorrect; it serves
only as a warning to plunderers that there is no time limit on
claims regarding theft or inappropriate removal. Nor does "Return"
only have to have a legal basis.
2. THE ICELANDIC
The models for cultural return cannot be confined
to cases of illicit dealing. A good example is that of the Icelandic
Saga manuscripts. The manuscripts were purchased at the beginning
of the 18th century by an Icelander and deposited with the University
of Copenhagen (which was then Iceland's university). These manuscripts
mean to Icelanders what Shakespearean literature means to the
English. After 25 years of public and political debate the first
returns began in 1971. Thousands of manuscripts have now been
returned, including even the Codex Regius and Flateyjarbok, which
had been gifts to the King and were kept at the Royal Library
in Copenhagen. Although the return was painful for the Danish
institutions this was resolved in time in terms of scholarship
and goodwill. Iceland never took legal action nationally or internationally
against Denmark. Return was finally an act of natural justice
and goodwill. It stands as an example and incentive for the rest
of the world for resolving sensitive issues.
2.1 While Iceland had no legal right to
the manuscripts, the consideration of reasonableness played a
part. The greater part of the manuscripts covered Icelandic matters
and they were written by and for Icelandic people. It was Icelanders
who for the greatest length of time concerned themselves with
3. THE ELGIN
The Elgin Marbles case is the world's most famous
cultural property issue. As a specific case it cannot be ignored
in any discussion of returnwhether it be regarding the
illicit market or not. The continued retention by the British
Museum fuels the cynicism of the art market.
3.1 THE LEGAL
The general concept of "Return" has
in the last decade become even more widespread. Although the Icelandic
manuscripts were deemed to be a "gift", the international
nature of the transaction and the magnitude and significance of
the return make it a part of international customary practice.
3.2 In the case of the Elgin Marbles, much
reliance is placed upon a firman (a Turkish permission) to remove
the sculptures. The House of Commons Select Committee Report
on the Earl of Elgin's Collection of Sculptured Marbles in
1816 explicitly refers to the fact that no original firman was
produced by Elgin. There was therefore no documentary proof at
the time that Lord Elgin took the sculptures. This document is
pivotal to this case. The Report says:
The applications upon this subject, passed in
verbal conversations; but the warrants or fermauns were granted
in writing, addressed to the chief authorities resident at Athens,
to whom they were delivered, and in whose hands they remained:
so that your Committee had no opportunity of learning from Lord
Elgin himself their exact tenor, or of ascertaining in what terms
they noticed, or allowed the displacing, or carrying away of these
Marbles. But Dr Hunt, who accompanied Lord Elgin as chaplain to
the Embassy, has preserved, and has now in his possession, a translation
of the second fermaun, which extended the powers of the first:
but as he had it not with him in London, to produce before your
Committee, he stated the substance, according to his recollection,
. . .
3.3 The sculptures were removed from a public
monument and a place of worship. The Parthenon was the Temple
of Athena. They were a part of Greek sovereign territory and hence
"immovable". Conventions, bilateral treaties and state
practice support the prima facie presumption that title
to such property never passes.
3.4 At the time of removal there was no
body of international law governing removal or return, but in
international law there is no estoppel by virtue of a time limit
to impede a contemporary claim.
3.5 Return should be determined by (a) the
means of acquisition, and (b) the nature of the object. Where
objects are taken by force, theft or deceit, where they are torn
from immovable monuments or buildings or removed from the ground,
the return issue is more clear cut.
3.6 The British Museum Act precludes the
Trustees from returning objects from the Museum. This would require
enabling legislation either of a general nature or specifically
in relation to the Elgin Marbles.
4. THE CULTURAL
The cultural worth of some things changes with
time; but ideas about past wrongs and cultural completeness continue
to be re-appraised. Cultural angst is being re-evaluated and this
permeates contemporary thought.
4.1 In the past decade there has been a
revision, particularly within the museum world and beyond, regarding
their contemporary role and their attitude to exhibiting questionably
4.2 The desire to declare a moratorium on
historically removed objects is misguided, because the attitude
to their continued retention directly colours the attitude of
the contemporary illicit market. The proper resolution of these
matters is an essential prerequisite to dealing successfully with
the current illicit art market, and especially with current archaeological
4.3 The concept that the return of major
items from museums spells doom for the major museum collections
is ill-conceived, because it presupposes that all or most material
is improperly held, and it ignores the fact that each and every
case of cultural return is unique and must be considered on its
4.4 The essence of the current issue regarding
the Elgin Marbles concerns their continued retention by the British
Museum. While the acquisition was controversial, there are many
considerations to be evaluated in whether it would be appropriate
to return the sculptures.
5. 15 REASONS
1. Lord Elgin never purchased the Marbles;
he only paid to transport them to the UK. He acquired them through
taking inappropriate advantage of his position as Ambassador to
Turkey (then occupying Greece). He intended them for his private
2. The British Government only circumstantially
acquired them because of Elgin's need to dispose of them. The
1816 Parliamentary Committee was convened to consider "whether
it be expedient that the collection mentioned in the Earl of Elgin's
petition should be purchased on behalf of the public . . ."
3. The British Museum was vested with the
Marbles by the House of Commons. At that time, during the debate
in the House of Commons, it was proposed by Mr Hugh Hammersley
that note should be taken that the Marbles were held only in trust.
4. Neither the House of Commons nor the
British Museum were at fault in acquiring the Marbles, so no blame
attaches to them regarding their acquisition. However, it is contrary
to the purpose and meaning of a great international museum to
retain an object so improperly removed when its higher purpose
is one of scholarship and cultural conservation.
5. The original firman (permission) was
not produced as proof to the House of Commons Select Committee.
Therefore Elgin's legal title is dubious, and not proven.
6. There are precedents in international
case law for the reinstatement of such materials. Such reinstatement
is feasible in the case of the Marbles, if only as a partial reinstatement
in situ, in close proximity to the original monument.
7. Whether or not the removal was illegal,
and irrespective of political arguments, return should be considered
on the aesthetic grounds of best cultural custodianship. It cannot
be denied that aesthetically the best and most meaningful location
for the Marbles is under Athenian skies in proximity to the Parthenon.
8. Discussions have taken place in the past
considering ultimate return, firstly by the House of Commons in
1816, and also the Foreign Office in 1941, as a possible gift
in friendship to an important wartime ally.
9. Greek culture has contributed immeasurably
to Western language and thought. Return would be no less an appropriate
acknowledgement of this bond than that acknowledged within the
Nordic world in the Danish act of returning the Saga manuscripts
to Iceland as a "gift".
10. In the past, it was considered that
there was no home in Athens for the Marbles. However, if this
were rectified through the creation of a proper museum venue guaranteeing
their continued preservation, this argument would no longer be
11. It has also been argued that the Marbles
can be more widely viewed in Britain than in Greece. But that
is not necessarily true. As a focal point in Athens, many more
people might go to Athens specifically to view them.
12. The sculptures were created for the
Athenians, by the Athenians and with an uniquely Athenian theme.
These are the people for whom the Marbles were intended. They
are a uniquely documented treasure. There is no obscurity regarding
their origins or "migration".
13. The question of return of the Marbles
would not precipitate the return of everything. It is a unique
case, and returns elsewhere have not had an adverse effect on
14. The return of the Marbles could herald
a new age of museum and archaeological co-operation, especially
between Britain and Greece, which could be fruitful in ways not
15. The Committee ought to embrace the concept
of return. The Marbles overwhelmingly belong to Greece. The request
for return is not an unreasonable one, especially as between museums.
The House of Commons Committee should have regard for Professor
Dantos's interpretation of The Return of Cultural Treasures as
continuing the morally rather beautiful idea that "cultural
objects belong by right to a culture", and that "in
certain circumstances this overrides rights of circumstantial
6. IN SUMMARY
The acquisition of the Elgin Marbles was dubious
and destructive. The purchase was circumstantial and the deposit
in the British Museum was an act of conservation. Their continued
retention is the true issue and in the light of international
legal and museum practice and the modern ethos regarding collecting,
acquisition and display, the notion of never returning anything
significant, regardless of changed circumstances, is out of date.
The frieze depicts the Panathenaic procession honouring the goddess
Athena. It was meant to run as a continuous picture on the outside
of the building. In the Duveen Gallery it can only be seen around
the roominside out. The frieze depicts the 12 gods of Olympus.
Greece, as the ancient home of the Olympic games, would like the
sculptures back to mark its Olympiad in 2004. Can this be so wrong?
Memorandum submitted by Dr P E TINIOS, University
I am a first-generation American of Greek descent
permanently resident in this country. Since 1978 I have been employed
as a Lecturer/Senior Lecturer in History by the University of
Leeds. My research and studies encompass ancient Greek history,
art and numismatics, ancient Chinese history, and Japanese art
and culture of the 18th and 19th centuries. This range of interests
has enabled me to develop my views on issues of cultural property
in general and the debate over the Elgin Marbles in particular
in a broad context. I contribute to an undergraduate course on
the Elgin Marbles and through review articles in Apollo and
Art History I have argued publicly against the "restitutionists".
1. The restitutionists cite UNESCO's call
for the return of those objects that are "central to the
cultural identity and national heritage of a people" and
whose removal "divests that culture of one of its dimensions".
The Elgin Marbles do not fall into this category.
1. The inhabitants of present day Greece
are not the sole heirs of the achievements of the ancient Greeks;
those achievements form an essential part of our common Western
2. The achievements of the ancient Greeks
are not the sole or even the most important component of the modern
Greeks' complex identity.
3. The presence of the Elgin Marbles in London
does not divest the modern Greeks of a dimension of their national
2. The restitutionists' obsession with "context"
and with the "integrity" of the Parthenon and the other
Acropolis monuments renders them indifferent to the fate of the
sculptures themselves. The "integrity" of the Parthenon
and the other Acropolis monuments was shattered long ago; it cannot
now be restored even in part by returning the Elgin Marbles to
3. In the course of the 18th century the
sculpture surviving on the Acropolis monuments suffered enormous
losses at the hands of indifferent locals and souvenir-seeking
visitors. (For details on the losses suffered by the Parthenon
in those years, see my review articles in the Annex to this submission.)
That destruction would have continued unabated for several more
decades and far less sculpture would survive in readable form
today if Elgin had not acted.
4. The pieces Elgin removed were spared
the further devastation that befell all the sculptures that remained
in situ: dissolution in the polluted atmosphere of 20th
century Athens. That pollution irreparably damaged the surfaces
of the in situ sculptures. Surfaces crumbled and flaked
away, not only destroying sharpness and detail but in some cases
causing the obliteration of substantial portions of frieze figures.
(The damage suffered by some of the sculptures in the British
Museum as a result of unauthorised cleaning in the late 1930s
cannot be compared with the devastation suffered by the pieces
that remained exposed in Athens.)
5. Only in recent years (between the mid
1970s and the mid 1990s) was the architectural sculpture remaining
in situ on the Acropolis removed to the protection of the
Acropolis Museum. This material included Parthenon pedimental
figures and frieze blocks (but not metopes), Temple of Nike frieze
blocks, and the remaining Caryatids. In view of the irreparable
damage being done to these sculptures by Athenian pollution, this
course of action was necessary and appropriate (though inexcusably
belated) and no more than the continuation of the process begun
by Elgin. (Unfortunately, the frieze blocks and metopes on the
Hephaisteion, a wonderfully preserved fifth-century temple within
sight of the Acropolis, remain exposed and continue to deteriorate.)
6. Restitutionists argue that a "wrong
of the past" needs to be reversed. The legality of Elgin's
actions is not at issue. Where then is the "wrong"?
Actions that led to the preservation of substantial elements of
the Parthenon's sculptural decoration cannot be regarded as a
7. Once the heroic efforts currently under
way to conserve the Acropolis monuments have been completed, more
coherent structures will be visible to visitors. Those structures
will, wherever possible, be graced with casts of their surviving
sculptural decorations. The sculptures surviving in Athens will
not be returned to their original context; they will remain in
the Acropolis Museum. The material in London is not required to
achieve the "reintegration" of the Parthenon or any
of the other Acropolis monuments.
8. It has been asserted that in a museum
in Athens the Elgin Marbles would at least be viewed "as
contemporary thinking demands" in immediate relation to the
monument for which they were created. If scattered parts of a
monument cannot be reintegrated with that monument, shifting those
parts from one museum to another to achieve a notional wholeness
cannot take precedence over all other considerations. A monument
dismembered remains a monument dismembered. The British Museum
offers a setting "contemporary thinking" ought to welcome,
one that provides millions of visitors each year with an unparalleled
opportunity to experience the Marbles free of charge in the broadest
possible context and thus to appreciate more fully the magnitude
of the achievement they represent.
9. Some restitutionists would applaud the
return of the Elgin Marbles because in their view it would force
Britain to take account of "important post-imperial realities".
Unless the Marbles are loaded down with spurious meaning and a
false history, such assertions are incomprehensible. It is regrettable
that there are those who see the Elgin Marbles as a means by which
we now might atone for the "sins" of previous generations.
10. In the face of contrary evidence, the
restitutionists blandly assure us that the return of the Elgin
Marbles would not establish a precedent that would "open
the floodgates". It is arrogant and/or naive of the restitutionists
to claim exceptionalism for their case. The return of the Elgin
Marbles would undermine the integrity of all the world's great
museums. It would falsify history and inflict a grave loss upon
our common cultural heritage.
11. The world's great museums allow us to
grasp the breadth of human artistic achievement and to challenge
narrow national conceits. In the British Museum the Parthenon
Sculptures are not demeaned by being reduced to totems of anyone's
nationality but are freely available to all to be studied and
appreciated as part of our common heritage.
12. One may be a passionate Philhellene
and still believe that the Elgin Marbles should remain in London.
34 In this submission I take the Elgin Marbles to
mean only those sculptures and architectural elements from structures
on the Acropolis removed by Lord Elgin's agents and now held by
the British Museum. Back
Not printed. Back