As part of Jewish Book Week, Geoffrey Robertson, left, will be discussing the legality of Lord Elgin’s actions in acquiring the historic sculptures. Dan Carrier reports
20 February, 2020 — By Dan Carrier
The Dionysos pediment, part of the Parthenon Sculptures
THERE is a piece of allegedly stolen property hiding in clear view in Camden. It is an item of such incredible value – soaring above anything that could be gauged in terms of its monetary worth – that it defines the term priceless.
It consists of blocks of marble hewn by Greek workers about 500bc, carved into a monumental frieze to grace a building into which the people who are considered to be the founders of our modern world poured their knowledge and faith.
They are the Parthenon Marbles, and they were taken from Athens around 200 years ago by Lord Elgin, a minor British aristocrat. They were then purchased by the British government at a back-of-the-lorry price, in the knowledge that this wasn’t exactly a kosher transaction.
The story of how these pieces of Greek antiquity came to reside in the British Museum has been well told in the past – but now barrister Geoffrey Robertson, who lives opposite the museum, has written a devastating polemic that lays bare the legal and moral arguments as to why the marbles must be returned to their rightful owners.
He is presenting his case at Jewish Book Week at the beginning of March – and has applied his legal training to the issue.
Robertson has long harboured interests in legal and moral questions that span international borders and illustrate the universality of human rights. A case like the restoration of the marbles, and righting a long-festering wrong, appeals to him. Previously, the Australian-born but London-based QC had been involved in ensuring the remains of Aboriginal people removed from Australia in the early days of colonisation were returned so their descendants could bury them according to their cultural customs.
In 2011, the Greek government’s deputy minister for foreign affairs, Demetri Dollos, arrived at his Doughty Street Chambers. He asked whether Robertson believed International Human Rights law, which had been used regarding the return and burial of human remains in museums around the world, could also be used to retrieve the Parthenon Marbles?
Robertson believes an international rule has now been firmly established that says cultural treasures of national significance should be returned to their country of origin if they have been removed by looting, theft or with the permission of an occupying power which has no legal right to grant it.
The idea that artefacts crucial to interpreting a nation’s history are part of a state’s sovereignty, and human rights law would also say the people of Greece have the right to have their heritage returned, he argues.
“I was gripped by that innate British dread of emptying the British Museum,” he says.
Robertson makes it as clear as is needed that these are not just any blocks of ancient stone and represent something much bigger than the work of unknown sculptors toiling away under the Athenian sun.
The masterpieces are described by Unesco as “universal symbols of the classical spirit and civilisation and form the greatest architectural and artistic complex bequeathed by Greek antiquity to the world… the marbles rank above the highest achievements of mankind… not only for their aesthetic qualities but also for their central place in the cultural history of ancient nations”.
Robertson details how the marbles arrived in Bloomsbury. It reads as a heady mixture of Elgin’s crookedness, British arrogance and a couple of officials prepared to be paid off.
“Elgin was by most accounts an under-bright but over-ambitious Tory, a Scottish nobleman who never succeeded in his life’s ambition to be made an English peer with a permanent seat in the House of Lords,” he writes.
Elgin joined the Foreign Office, and was posted to Constantinople: he had hoped his Scottish home would be a thing of neo-classical beauty attracting the attention of the Victorian jet set. His architect made the suggestion that he should adorn his home with plaster casts of the Parthenon.
And then Elgin’s colours as a blagger emerge: he decided instead of plaster casts, he would taking whatever he could get his hands on. He travelled to Athens and bribed officials, says Robertson, to turn a blind eye while he got workmen to remove the ornaments and take them to the British Consul. He then sent them home using British warships.
Elgin had been given a slip called a “firmin”, a pass handed out by authorities allowing his workers to make sketches and casts – nothing more.
“What Elgin did, employing several hundred workmen, was not merely mission creep – an excessive interpretation of a licence – but amounted to taking away without permission, in other words, to theft,” he adds.
A British Museum spokeswoman says the marbles are in their rightful place: “The Parthenon Sculptures were acquired legally, with the approval of the Ottoman authorities of the day, they were not acquired as a result of conflict or violence. Lord Elgin’s activities were thoroughly investigated by a Parliamentary Select Committee in 1816 and found to be entirely legal. The museum is committed to sharing the collection as widely as possible and working in collaboration with communities, individuals and institutions across the world. We have longstanding relationships with colleagues in Greece and have lent objects to various museums, including the Acropolis Museum. The foundational value of the museum is in its breadth, scale, complexity and unity. It is a unique resource to explore the richness, diversity and complexity of all human history.”
Not so, argues Robertson, adding: “We cannot right historical wrongs – but we can no longer, without shame, profit from them.”
• Who Owns History? Elgin’s Loot and the Case for Returning Plundered Treasure is on March 4 at 8.30pm, Kings Place, York Way, N1. Tickets £16.50. See jewishbookweek.com/event/who-owns-history/
Jewish Book Week highlights
AMONG the talks taking place over the week-long book festival are a poetry reading by Hampstead-based poet Jeremy Robson.
His latest anthology, The Heartless Traffic, is a record of a lifetime in poetry. A key member of the poetry scene in the 60s and 70s, Robson worked as an artistic director at Centre 42 in the Roundhouse. He organised various readings that combined his passion for the written word and jazz.
The book considers “childhood haunts, Jewish roots, youthful passions and the rumbling of war, nights in Soho, Venice, Paris and Rome, the mysteries of Cairo and the alleyways of Jerusalem – and some of the artists Robson has known down the years, including the poet Dannie Abse”.
Jeremy Robson: March 1, 2pm, Kings Place, St Pancras Room
• The extraordinary graphic art of Abram Games, who designed posters during the Second World War, is celebrated by his daughter Naomi in a talk entitled Abram Games: His Wartime Work. Games held the title Official War Poster Artist and his ability to convey a message simply, efficiently and beautifully was a crucial element to raising morale on the home front.
Abram Games: His Wartime Work, March 2. 8.30pm, Kings Place, St Pancras
• The story of the 43 Group – a band of predominantly Jewish soldiers who after victory in 1945 saw the battle against fascism had not been won on the streets of London – is told by author Daniel Sonabend.
The 43 Group included the likes of Morris Beckman, who lived in West Hampstead – and they took on Oswald Mosley’s far-right fascists. Sonabend’s book, We Fight Fascists, describes who the members were, what tactics they used and how they fought back.
Daniel Sonabend: March 1, 6.30pm, Kings Place, Hall 1
• Jewish Book Week runs from February 29 to March 8. For full details and to book tickets visit jewishbookweek.com