Response to Boris Johnson’s comments about the Parthenon Sculptures


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Culture Minister Lina Mendoni has contacted the international associations for the reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures to inform them of the positions expressed by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and to propose action to inform Johnson and the British public that the British Museum’s possession of the sculptures is illegal, according to a ministry announcement on Monday.

Response to Boris Johnson’s comments about the Parthenon Sculptures
Parthenon frieze at British Museum [Credit: Pixabay]

The minister’s letter prompted a swift response from the national associations, as well as the International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures, the culture ministry press release said.

It noted that the letter was prompted by an interview given by the UK prime minister to the newspaper Ta Nea, in which he repeated the position that the sculptures were legally acquired by Lord Elgin based on the laws of that time and that the trustees of the British Museum were thus their legal owner.

In her reply, Ms Mendoni said that Johnson does not appear to be informed of the latest evidence showing that the British Museum does not have legitimate ownership of the sculptures:

“Upon careful review of the statements made by U.K. Prime Minister, Mr. Boris Johnson, it is clear that he has not been properly informed by the competent state services of his country, of the new historical data regarding, that show that there has was never a legitimate acquisition of the Parthenon Sculptures by Lord Elgin and, therefore neither has the British Museum ever acquired the Sculptures in a legitimate manner. The Ministry of Culture and Sports can provide the necessary documentary evidence that can inform the British people that the British Museum possesses the Sculptures illegally.

“For Greece, the British Museum does not have legitimate ownership or possession of the Sculptures. The Parthenon, as a symbol of UNESCO and Western Civilisation, reflects universal values. We are all obliged to work towards this direction.”

Following the minister’s briefing, the Chair of the International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures Christiane Tytgat congratulated Mendoni for her swift response:

“This proves, once again, that despite the fact that Prime Minister Johnson has studied the classics in depth, we still have a lot of work to do in terms of informing people, even here in Greece, as they do not know exactly what it is we are asking to be returned and are not aware of the precise circumstances of its looting. And we will do it! …Neither Athens, nor Rome, were built in a day…”

The international association’s honorary chair Louis Godart congratulated and expressed “deep gratitude” to Mendoni for her “wonderful reply to Boris Johnson” and pledged to continue the struggle for the return of “the sculptures of Pheidias and I have no doubt that we will ultimately succeed.”

The deputy chair of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures, Paul Cartledge, also thanked the minister for the swiftness of her reply.

Below is a message by Parthenon Marbles Campaigner, Don Morgan Nielsen from Lefas Humanitas:

The fact that Boris Johnson claims that something is “perfectly legal” does not necessarily make it so. In fact, the very opposite often turns out to be the case. So, while the British Prime Minister’s claim of legal ownership is not surprising, it is not something to be taken at face value. When someone protests so strongly about the legality of their actions or acquisitions, it is usually a sign that a closer look is in order.

Hartwig Fischer, the Director of the British Museum, used identical words two years ago when asked the same question about the Marbles’ provenance and legal status. Boris Johnson is simply reading from the British Museum’s playbook, which has evolved over time, from British imperial condescension regarding Greece’s ability to properly care for the collection to their assertion that the looted sculptures are now part of a “different narrative” and really belong in a museum of and for the world (which just happens to be in London).

If the British Museum really and truly wants to argue this case on its legal merits, then that is a confrontation which Greece should no longer avoid. This is not a case for the British courts but for the most appropriate international forum, most probably the International Court of Justice, to be considered in accordance with established and emerging principles of customary international law. This has never before been done on behalf of the Parthenon Marbles, and Britain is banking on the assumption that Greece does not have the willpower, the resources or the determination to take this course of action. But they are wrong. Lawyers, jurists, scholars and researchers specializing in the Ottoman archives, including renowned international Human Rights barrister Geoffrey Robertson QC, have repeatedly shown that nothing about this case was “perfectly legal”. In particular:

A) At the time of Parliament’s purchase of the Marbles in 1816, Lord Mansfield had already articulated the founding principles of British Commercial Law, according to which any transaction facilitated through bribery is considered null, void and illegal, while the Duke of Wellington in 1815 argued for the return of Napoleon’s “stolen artefacts”.

B) There was no proof or record of Lord Elgin’s “ownership” of the Marbles, and certainly no record of sale or purchase. Elgin admitted as much himself during his testimony before the 1816 House of Commons Select Committee convened to examine the case. In response to an MP’s question “Did you not keep for your own satisfaction any copy of a permission?”, Elgin replied “No, I never did.” The leading lawyer on the Committee, moreover, MP Sergeant Best, concluded that “These Marbles have been brought to this country in breach of good faith.” And while there exists no record of explicit permission to remove such sculptures from the temples of the Acropolis, and no legal document proving either purchase or ownership, there does exist extensive written correspondence between Elgin and his people in Athens attesting to the bribery of local Ottoman officials over the course of several years. Nevertheless, faced with a fait accompli, Parliament decided to make the best of a bad situation by purchasing these unique sculptures at a bargain price and enacting legislation to try to retroactively legalize what most people at the time considered an extremely questionable transaction – on both ethical and legal grounds.

C) The relevant codes of Ottoman (Sharia) law which applied in Elgin’s time to antiquities and monuments in Greece and other occupied lands was called “Ibrah”. This collection of laws, rulings and traditions (the 19th-Century equivalent of today’s Cultural Heritage Law) strictly forbade the removal of pieces from historical shrines or monuments. Exceptions to these laws could only be made through an official firman, which in turn could only be issued by the Sultan himself. All firmans were recorded in the meticulously comprehensive Ottoman archives in Constantinople, but there is no record of any firman applying to the monuments of the Acropolis in Athens. Elgin managed to obtain a letter from a friendly Vizier in Constantinople, but this was not a firman, and it did not confer permission to partially dismantle the temples of the Acropolis and remove their sculptural decoration.

D) Robert Adair, Lord Elgin’s successor as British Ambassador to the Sublime Porte (the Sultan and his court), wrote to Elgin shortly after assuming his post: “I have to inform your Lordship that the Porte absolutely denied your having any property in those marbles.”

E) Modern treaties and jurisprudence similarly point in the same direction.

The trajectory of the law is firmly on the side of protection, repatriation, reunification and restitution in cases where important cultural heritage is removed under inequitable and dubious circumstances. Greece was under occupation at the time of Elgin’s removal of the sculptures, and throughout the 200 years since gaining independence it has been calling for their return. The keys to Greece’s ancient history await to be reunified in the Acropolis Msueum, where they will complete the Parthenon’s meaning and global significance.

These are legal points and principles. However, the strongest principles, from which a nation’s laws are derived, are moral and ethical ones, which embody what that people consider to be right and just. Rather than allowing Boris Johnson to have the final word on the legal ownership of the Parthenon Marbles, let’s recall Lord Mansfield’s exhortation:

“Let justice be done, though the heaven’s fall.”

Source: Neos  Kosmos [March 16, 2021]

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