Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


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.


  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 the manuscripts.


  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 return—whether it be regarding the illicit market or not. The continued retention by the British Museum fuels the cynicism of the art market.


  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.


  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 obtained objects.

  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 plunder.

  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 own merits.

  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.


  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 home.

  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 valid.

  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 museums.

  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 previously foreseen.

  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 ownership".


  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 room—inside 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?

March 2000


Memorandum submitted by Dr P E TINIOS, University of Leeds

  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.[34]

    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 heritage.

    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 heritage.

  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 Athens.

  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.[35]) 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 "wrong".

  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.

March 2000

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

35   Not printed. Back

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