7 facts about the Elgin Marbles

Greece has ruled out taking legal action against the UK to reclaim the Elgin Marbles from the British Museum, it has been announced

The Elgin Marbles on display in the Duveen Gallery at the British Museum, London, 1971. (Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Greece’s culture minister, Nikos Xydakis, said the country would instead pursue a “diplomatic and political”approach to retrieving the sculptures.

According to BBC News, Xydakis told the country’s Mega TV: “One cannot go to court over whatever issue. Besides, in international courts the outcome is uncertain”.

In doing so, the country has gone against the advice of barrister Amal Clooney, who had urged Greece to take Britain to the International Court of Justice.

A British Museum spokesperson said: “We welcome this change of position by the Greek government. We hope that this will enable us to develop existing good relations with curatorial colleagues in Greece, and to discuss with them directly, on an institution-to institution basis, the ways in which we can together enable the whole world to see, study and enjoy the sculptures of the Parthenon.”

The Elgin Marbles is a collection of stone sculptures and inscriptions acquired by Lord Elgin in Athens between 1801 and 1805. Now known collectively as the Elgin Marbles, the objects were purchased by the British crown from Lord Elgin in 1816 and presented by parliament to the British Museum, where they have remained ever since.

Greece has disputed the British Museum’s ownership of the sculptures, maintaining that Lord Elgin removed them illegally while the country was under Turkish occupation as part of the Ottoman Empire. Lord Elgin was ambassador to the Ottoman court of the Sultan in Istanbul in the early 19th century.

Here, we bring you seven facts about the Elgin Marbles…

• The collection includes sculptures from the Parthenon, a marble frieze temple (aka a Doric temple) on the Athenian Acropolis, Greece, built 447–432 BC and dedicated to the goddess Athena. In 1687 the temple, which had stood for about 2,000 years, was largely destroyed during a war between Venice and the Ottoman Empire, which was then occupying Greece.

• According to the British Museum, Elgin was granted a firman (letter of instruction) granting him permission to take away the pieces “as a personal gesture after he encouraged the British forces in their fight to drive the French out of Egypt, which was then an Ottoman possession”. The legality of this document is today hotly debated.

• The Elgin Marbles collection consists of roughly half of what now survives of the Parthenon: 247 feet of the original 524 feet of frieze; 15 of 92 metopes; 17 figures from the pediments, and various other pieces of architecture, says the British Museum. It also includes objects from other buildings on the Acropolis: the Erechtheion, the Propylaia, and the Temple of Athena Nike.

Parthenon Marbles (also known as the Elgin Marbles) at the British Museum in London, January 2007. (Photo by Barry King/WireImage)

• The term ‘Elgin Marbles’ was first used in the 19th century, when the objects were housed in the Elgin Room at the British Museum, completed in 1832. There the collection remained until the Duveen Gallery (Room 18) was built. Because the marble slabs are actually part of the frieze that ran around the whole of the Parthenon inside the peristyle, they should, technically, be known as the Parthenon frieze.

• Elgin had originally intended to donate his collection to the nation, but his plan was scuppered when, on his return to England, he suffered crippling financial problems. It is believed that many of the relics were for years stored in the grounds of Elgin’s Park Lane house while he tried to find a buyer.

In 1810 Elgin began formal negotiations with the British Government for the sale of the objects. Elgin had hoped to raise £73,600, but agreed to accept the value determined by a select committee of the House of Commons, which held the collection to be worth £35,000.

The collection was in 1816 vested in the trustees of the British Museum in perpetuity under the terms of the Local and Personal Acts 56 George III c.99. The Trustees now hold the Elgin collection under the terms of The British Museum Act (1963).

• In 2004, art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon told the BBC: “I think it’s important not to judge Elgin by the standards of the present. You have to judge the man in the context of his own time.” The report says that while “plundering” artworks would spark outrage today, during Elgin’s era “it was common for the wealthy to collect ancient treasures from around the world. Tourists to Greece regularly took souvenirs from the Parthenon site, and as a genuine lover of art now armed with apparent authority to take whatever he wished, Elgin began removing his share.”

• In 2012 Stephen Fry called for the Parthenon Marbles to be returned to Greece. In a debate hosted by Intelligence Squared in London, Fry said it would be a “classy” move to restore the sculptures. Opposing the motion, Tristram Hunt MP said he feared that restoring the Marbles could lead to a “purge” of museums in which “tit-for-tat recoveries” of objects by their countries of origin would lead to a “global loss of appreciation and understanding”.

To find out more about the Elgin Marbles, visit the British Museum website.

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