Yours, Mine, and Ours: The Elgin Marbles and the Power of One Word

26 Mar


The Parthenon

The artistry is exquisite; the detailing impressive.  Built from 447 B.C. to 432 B.C. when such a building was truly a monument to the creativity and abilities of the Greeks, the Parthenon’s beauty has survived generations and centuries to remind the world of the power of human ingenuity.  Carefully built upon a solid foundation of limestone and painstakingly elaborated with carvings of Pentelic Marble, the Parthenon has 46 separate columns surrounding the building. Above those columns, dozens of detailed marble plaques were embedded in the roof (1).  It is these plaques that have been the center of so much debate in recent years (1).  You can actually still see in the photo below the places where these embedded marbles used to be.

History and Background


You can see the holes where the plaques used to be here above the columns.

The western world has long been hypnotized by the Greco-Roman period of art as their Classical periods reflect.  For centuries, European fashions, writings, and works of art have copied or memorialized the treasured works of Ancient Greece.  As such, the country and its historical artifacts have a special place in the hearts of many other western peoples.

Understanding the current debate over the Parthenon marbles requires looking fairly far back into history.  In 1485 A.D., Greece fell into the hands of the Ottoman empire.  It was not a good time for the Greek historical sites and artifacts as many were lost, destroyed, or carelessly left unprotected. The Parthenon itself was severely damaged when the Ottomans stored their gunpowder in the building and it was hit by a bomb setting off the gunpowder (1).  Thus it was that when Lord Elgin, a British Ambassador to the Ottoman empire, arrived in Athens in 1799, he found the place in disarray and much of the building in danger of further destruction (2).

The dispute arises over the fact that Elgin actually removed the marble plaques from the country.  Upon discovering the state of the Parthenon, Elgin went before the Ottoman authorities and eventually finagled them into giving him a “firman.”  This firman was a letter that gave Elgin the right to make casts and molds of the pictures, along with permission to remove at least some things from the Parthenon (1, 2).  In the end, he relocated the vast majority of the plaques to his home in England, later leaving then the British Museum where they remain on display to this day.

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A Very Powerful Word 

The British Museum sees over 6 million visitors every year, most of whom take the opportunity to stop by the Elgin display.  The marbles are an amazingly beautiful collection matched by few other classical art galleries, if any. It is impossible to look at these great images and not feel overwhelmed by the sheer talent displayed.  However, while many tourists appreciate the opportunity to stop by the Museum as part of their England visits, Greece is not so happy with the situation.  Greece has raised numerous objections to the British Museums continued possession of the marbles, not the least of which being that they were either taken illegally or that the document giving Elgin permission to remove items from the Parthenon did not come from the Greeks themselves and thus they should be repatriated.  Mostly it comes down to one word in the firman (i.e. letter of permission).


A Copy of The Letter outlining what Elgin Had permission to do.

The biggest issue in this dispute between Greece and the British Museum is that when describing what Elgin could remove from the Parthenon, the Ottomans used a particular word, “Qualche.”  Unfortunately this can be translated two ways: either as “any”  or as “some.”  Greece claims that it meant “some” and that Elgin horribly abused the contract.  The British Museum claims that it meant “any” and that Elgin did not more than was allowed.  Over the past several decades, nearly every art historian, dealer, and enthusiast has adopted one view or the other.  If Elgin did misinterpret the word, and removed the artifacts illegally, then stolen art law applies and Greece has a claim.  If they were taken legally, then Greece has to rely on modern cultural property law, which is rather ambiguous about the whole issue, and traditional property law, which leans towards a ruling in favor of the British Museum.

The debate has gone back and forth repeatedly over the years, but to this day it remains unsettled.  Those who take sides do so with strong passions and heated words have flown both ways.  As a result, several much smaller, though no less important, issues have been brought to light out of this case.

For example, Britain claimed that Greece could not adequately preserve and display the marbles; Greece built an entire museum dedicated solely to those marbles–it remains empty still today (3). This same argument has been used against several of the Arab countries who want certain cultural artifacts returned to them despite the looting and warfare going on in those areas.  Egypt also faced down that argument in regards to its demands for certain Egyptian artifacts.  The question of whether an inability to preserve one’s artifacts limits one’s right to possess those same works remains a hot button topic.

Another issue, as mentioned above, is the fact that Greece was an occupied territory at the time the firman was written.  This raises the question of whether the British Museum is morally obligated to return the marbles in acknowledgement of what Greece considers to be an oppressive and improper takeover of the Greek government by the Ottoman empire.  Is Britain giving credence to the Ottoman empire’s right to conquer Greece by upholding this contract?  And are any moral feelings reflected in modern law.

Thirdly, much of international law applies only prospectively, meaning that it only applies to disputes that arise after the law is passed.  Since most international cultural property law came after 1954, long after Elgin removed the marbles, there is a question over whether those laws can be applied to this case.

Most importantly, even if the international law was applied to this case, it isn’t clear who would win.  Under international law, there is a special right to possess cultural artifacts that are part of your heritage.  Thus, in America many of the American Indian tribes have the right to come in and claim artifacts found on private property simply on the basis that these artifacts are an important tool in preserving their culture. However, problems arise when more than one party can show that the artifact is important to their culture.   The law doesn’t say whether it belongs to the people who owned it first (in the Elgin Marble case, the Greeks) or whether it belongs to any party that can prove that it an important remnant of their culture (in this case, Britain can stake a claim because it has been such an important part of their museum’s history).

Elgin Marbles

Elgin Marbles


Ultimately, the small case has sparked into a much larger dispute of law and morality.  On the legal side, it raises issues of contract law, art law, and international law.  In regards to morality, it raises the issue of who is entitled to cultural property in the end and how much such ethical decisions are allowed to triumph over individual’s rights to own property.  It is highly unlikely that the issue will be settled in anyone’s minds in the near future, but at least for now, the British Museum is winning out.   And no matter who owns them, everyone agrees they are worth seeing, wherever you have to go.

Additional Resources

  1. John Henry Merryman, Thinking About the Elgin Marbles,   83 Mich. L. Rev. 1881 (1985), available at 
  2. John Henry Merryman, Thinking About the Elgin Marbles: Critical Essays on Cultural Property, Art, and Law, Kluwer L. Int’l (2009).
  3. “The Elgin Marbles: A Case Study,” American University, available at
  4. Kate Fitz Gibbon, ed., Who Owns the Past: Cultural Policy, Cultural Property, and the Law, Rutgers U.P. (2005), available at,+elgin+marbles&source=gbs_navlinks_s.
  5. B. F. Cook, The Elgin Marbles, British Museum P. (1997).
  6. The British Museum official website
  7. Richard Dormant, “The Elgin Marbles Will Never Return To Athens–The British Museum is their Rightful Home,” available at
  8. Henry Porter, “The Greeks gave us their Olympics. Let Them Have the Marbles,” available at

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