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At the Museums: The Parthenon Marbles Custody Case Volume 52 Number 3, May/June 1999
by Shareen Blair Brysac

(illustration by Ray Bartkus)

The argument over the 2,400-year-old sculptures, which once graced the Temple of Athena Parthenos on the Athenian acropolis, has been unremitting since Thomas Bruce, the seventh earl of Elgin, carried off 56 pieces of its frieze, 15 metopes, and 17 pediment sculptures, plus a caryatid and a column from a nearby temple, the Erechtheion. This was accomplished during his tenure (1799-1802) as George III's ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. At that time Athens was a small, sleepy outpost of the sultan's empire, and Elgin was able to obtain firmans, or permits, for the removal and export of the sculptures by resorting to payments--he lists 21,902 in presents to local Turkish officials. One that survives in an Italian translation allowed him to take away "qualche pezzi di pietra con iscrizioni e figure" ("some pieces of stone with inscriptions or figures"), which was interpreted by Elgin to include sculpture that until 1802 still decorated the building. Doubtless Elgin thought that he was performing an act of rescue, but from the beginning he was accused of vandalism and robbery. The attack was led by Lord Byron, who berated Elgin as "the last, the worst, dull spoiler" of the Parthenon.

In 1816 a series of personal misfortunes forced the earl to sell his collection to the British nation for the knock-down price of 35,000. The marbles were then deposited in the British Museum for safekeeping. Now the restitution dispute is taking a new turn with the revival of claims that the sculptures were mutilated by restorers on the orders of art dealer Lord Joseph Duveen. The British historian William St. Clair presented evidence first raised in his book, Lord Elgin and the Marbles, at a seminar sponsored by the Society for the Preservation of Greek Heritage at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in February of this year.

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Shareen Blair Brysac and her husband Karl E. Meyer are authors of the forthcoming Tournament of Shadows: The Race for Empire in Central Asia.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America