The dispute over the Parthenon (or Elgin) Marbles is known to many. Yet, the issues in dispute have often been clouded by rhetoric and the parties’ entrenched positions. What are the legalities which surround the Marbles’ removal from Athens in the first years of the 19th century? What is the ethical situation of their continued retention by the British Museum today? How has the dispute evolved over the decades? Is there a way forward for the parties involved?Authored by Alexander Herman, Director of the IAL, and published as the first volume in The Art Law Library series, The Parthenon Marbles Dispute: Heritage, Law, Politics (2023) is a fascinating text which answers these questions and more. With great experience in this area, Herman takes care to canvass the ground in London and Athens – including legal, archaeological, museological and political perspectives, and presents a critical, clear, and contemporary view on the Parthenon Marbles dispute.
The book was launched on 28 September 2023 at the Centre for Commercial Law Studies, Queen Mary University of London, and is Herman’s second book (his first, Restitution: The Return of Cultural Artefacts (2021), covers the international challenges surrounding restitution of cultural objects). The event was introduced by Barnaby Phillips, author of Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes, who also moderated the event’s Q&A session.
Before an audience including art, heritage and legal professionals, Herman teased out the broad themes of the book, in line with its 10 chapters – the past, the present and the (possible) future for the Parthenon Marbles.
Herman introduced the history of the Parthenon (whose construction began in 447 BCE), and its significance in Greek society. The figures adorning the frieze (from Greek gods to Athenian citizens) were also highlighted, and with “the symmetry of the figures, which would have been visible as one entered the main chamber of the Parthenon[,] [t]he sculptural scheme of the Parthenon was clearly a fully integrated work of art…”.
Herman then focused on the circumstances where, pursuant to an 1801 letter from a deputy of the Ottoman sovereign (the Kaymakam), Lord Elgin’s men removed the Parthenon Marbles. At the time, Elgin was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, of which Greece was then a part.
All that remains of the Ottoman letter is an Italian translation. For years, many assumed the document to be a ‘firman’, a royal decree issued by the Ottoman sovereign. However, certain formalities of a typical firman were absent, and no corresponding firman has ever been found in the Ottoman archives. Nevertheless, according to Herman, the terms of the letter appeared to convey orders to both the governor and judge of Athens, which permitted the removal of “some pieces of stone with old inscriptions and figures”.
Herman highlighted that the Parthenon was a ruin at the time (following a prior Venetian bombardment of Athens in 1687). However, Elgin’s men had taken away more than mere rubble. Many pieces were prised from the building itself, using brutal and primitive methods of removal. Others were sawed down, chiselled, and taken apart. The book analyses, in-depth, the numerous legal issues relating to the removal of the Parthenon Marbles and the validity of their legal title passing.
At the launch, Herman encouraged the audience to consider ethical perspectives beyond the strict legalities. Various provisions in the ICOM (International Council of Museums) Code of Ethics (2004), which are accepted minimum ethical standards for the museum sector today, highlight the ethically problematic status of the Marbles in the British Museum and how they were once acquired.
The book additionally goes behind the scenes at the British Museum and in Athens, to examine and compare approaches to cultural matters and the place that the Marbles occupy in their respective social (and institutional) fabric. At the launch, Herman pointed to a comparison closer to home. The audience only needed look to Holborn station (a stone’s throw away), where sections of the south frieze are reproduced along the underground platform. The Akropoli metro station in Athens does the same – reproducing sections of the north Parthenon frieze instead.
The dispute has become increasingly politicised and nationalised in recent decades. However, the ultimate question is the future of the Parthenon Marbles.
Herman highlighted that the answer is unlikely one entailing “politicians…slic[ing] through the Gordian knot”. Instead, the question should be “whether politicians should be involved at all – on either side”. When asked further by the audience, Herman shared that politicians (in the widest sense) should take a step back, in favour of cultural heritage / museum professionals attempting a resolution to the Parthenon Marbles dispute. Indeed, “[i]f there is to be a negotiated agreement, it will inevitably be the museum professionals who will have to care for the pieces”.
The book sheds light on this. Politics and nationalist interests muddy the issues, and the book considers the possibility of a sensible way forward – when viewed against dispute resolution theories, parties’ entrenched positions and the state of their relationship.
Readers would appreciate Herman’s thorough and balanced analysis across the chapters. This is the book to read to benefit from an objective and equal perspective on the heritage, law and politics concerning the Parthenon Marbles.
For those who missed the book launch in London, Alexander will also be speaking to art lawyer Nicholas O’Donnell as part of the Harvard Program on Negotiation ‘Live! Book Talks’, an online event taking place on 8th November. Register for the free event here.
Image Credits: © Institute of Art and Law.