Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Mr Jules Dassin

  I am grateful for the invitation to address this Committee. I do so in the name of the Melina Mercouri Foundation of which I am president.

  Melina Mercouri served for more than eight years as Minister of Culture of the Greek Government. During that period she worked arduously for the return of the Parthenon Marbles to the country where they were made and for whom they were made. We of the Foundation are committed to that cause.

  It is now 184 years that another Select Committee was asked to consider Lord Elgin's proposal to sell the sculptures to the British Government.

  With equal degrees of timidity and temerity I express my darker purpose; that is to ask of this Committee of the year 2000, how you judge the statements and the decisions made by the Select Committee of 1816 and by the Government. May I review some of it with you.

  In the interest of time and knowing that you have been going over this ground, from what I quote I have made abbreviations. It is not in exact order but the context is intact. No word is mine.

  In the month of February of that year the Chancellor of the Exchequer addressed the House of Commons. He moved that a Select Committee be formed to address the Elgin proposal. He deemed that these sculptures were, I quote, "the most valuable works of art that had ever been brought from the western part of Europe". He had only the highest praise for Lord Elgin for acquiring them.

  I find it interesting that he also said that "the circumstances under which the noble Lord had possessed of these matchless productions were so well known that he would not trouble the House at any length on the subject" but "if the present opportunity would be neglected it might never occur again"

  I find it interesting because it smacks a bit of railroading. And what the Yankees would call "A done deal".

  There was some opposition to the motion to form a Select Committee. Lord Ossulston, quote, "he could not object to procuring the advantage of such an interesting collection". A question however might arise, "whether an ambassador, residing in the territories of a foreign power, should have the right of appropriating to himself, and deriving benefits from objects belonging to that power". He thought therefore that the House go no further than to remunerate the noble Lord for the trouble and expenses to which he had in bringing over these marbles.

  Mr Preston said "if ambassadors were encouraged to make these speculations, many might return home in the character of merchants and besides he did not see that Lord Elgin was bound by what a committee thought right".

  And Mr Tierney "if the motion meant that the noble Lord availing himself of this official character should now call himself the possessor he would not agree to the motion".

  Mr Banks agreed that Lord Elgin had availed himself of his character as an English ambassador to facilitate the acquisition. But that the collection was so unrivalled in its nature and so desirable that the public should possess, that he could not hesitate to agree to the motion.

  Mr Abercrombie who did not oppose the motion said "it was a matter of public duty not to hold out a precedent to ambassadors to avail themselves of their situations to obtain such property and then convert it to their own purposes".

  Mr Croker would not have voted for the motion if he did not think it essential to ascertain that what had been done was compatible with the noble Lord's honour.

  The motion to appoint a committee was carried. The Committee was asked to address three main points:

    1.  What was the worth of the sculptures.

    2.  Did Lord Elgin abuse his office of ambassador.

    3.  Was the transaction honourable.

  Not much time was given to fix the price of £35,000.

  Did he abuse his office of ambassador? I have cited a number of members who so protested. There were others, some with resentment and emotion.

  And it was deplored that a British Ambassador had taken advantage of the success over the French in Egypt to plunder the city of Athens.

  And hear this from Reverend Philip Hunt, Lord Elgin's closest collaborator in Greece, quote, "Such extensive powers would only have been given to an ambassador of a highly favoured ally at such an opportune time".

  How then was the question of abuse of office resolved. Well it was an interesting formula. In the Committee report there was agreement that only an ambassador would have such extensive powers but-and here's the formula-I quote, "but undoubtedly Lord Elgin had looked upon himself as acting in a character entirely distinct from his official situation". And thus it came to be ruled that Lord Elgin in obtaining the Marbles had acted only as a simple private citizen. And that was that.

  A question. It was known that much of what Elgin had cut down from the Parthenon was transported to England in British warships. Can it be believed that a private citizen could ask for and obtain warships for his personal purposes? Of course the question of ambassadorial abuse had to be addressed for its ethical aspect. Is it wrong to discern another reason? It was clear from the first words of the Chancellor of the Exchequer that the Government wanted to have the Marbles for England. Indeed he had begun negotiations with Elgin back in 1811. But to buy them from the country's own ambassador? Sticky. And it was not absent from mind that France had to return all of Napoleon's plunder. More prudent to have Elgin declared a private citizen. N'est ce pas?

  So to the third point. Was the transaction proper and honorable?

  Appearing before the Committee Lord Elgin testified that when he witnessed the great destruction perpetrated by the barbarous Turks on the Acropolis, it was only then that he asked for and obtained the permission from the Ottaman authorities allowing him, I quote, "to rescue, everything that he could".

  Was it only then? The first time that Elgin could have witnessed this "Turkish barbarity" would have been in the spring of 1802 for the simple reason that that was the first time he ever set foot on the Acropolis. Yet months before this some of the treasures had already been taken down. I quote from a letter addressed to Giovanni Lusieri his highest-ranking employee dated 1801, quote, "Each piece should be packed in a separate case in such manner that they not be recognized by the curious".

  Now did he receive the permission to rescue "everything that he could"? it seems to me that indeed that is the question. Because if the answer is no did he have the right to sell them? Another question could then follow. If the answer is no may it not be asked if it was proper for England to buy them from him?

Then what was granted by the firman?

  It was signed by the Kaymacam Pasha and addressed to the Governor of Athens. It is in Italian translation. The original has never been seen.

  I refer to the pertinent points:

    1.  That Elgin's employees meet no opposition in walking, examining or contemplating the pictures and buildings that they may wish to draw or with copying with chalk or plasters and making moulds.

    2.  To dig according to need to find inscribed stones under the rubbish covering the foundation of the temple. And to take away some pieces of stones with inscriptions or figures.

    3.  To favour such request in conformity with what is due to the friendship, sincerity, alliance and good will between the sublime and ever durable Ottaman Court and that of England—particularly as there is no harm in the said pictures and buildings being contemplated and drawn.

  If you peruse the entire firman word by word you will find nothing that gave permission to take the sculptures from the building.

  The question was asked-"Did your Lordship for your own satisfaction (sic) keep a copy of these permissions?"

  His answer-"No. it never occurred to me that the question could arise". The answer seemed to satisfy.

  Another question then. "Did the Turkish Government know that your Lordship was removing statues under the permission you obtained from them?"

  Elgin's answer. "No doubt was ever expressed to me".

  The seemingly normal follow up question "nor to anyone in your employ" was not asked. But when Reverend Hunt testified to the Committee it became clear that both he and the Turkish Governor in Athens and Elgin knew well that the firman had been exceeded.

  A question to Hunt-"Do you imagine that the firman gave direct permission to remove figures and pieces of sculptures from the walls of the temple?" Hunt's answer-"That was the interpretation that the Governor was induced to believe".

  Handsome gifts and an important sum of money greased that inducement. This sum is noted in Elgin's own accounts book, as well as other monies given to the Governor for years to follow.

  As for provision of no harm being done, there were witnesses to terrible harm. Permit me to quote them because if there was such harm done perhaps whatever the firman granted was violated and rendered invalid.

  Edward Dodwell wrote:

    "I had the inexpressible mortification of being present, when the Parthenon was despoiled of its finest sculptures. I saw several metopes at the south east extremity of the temple taken down. They were fixed in between the triglyphs as in a groove; and in order to lift them up, it was necessary to throw to the ground the magnificent cornice by which they were covered. The south east angle of the pediment shared the same fate; and instead of the picturesque beauty and high preservation in which I first saw it, it is now completely reduced to state of shattered desolation".

  Robert Smirke wrote:

    "It particularly affected me when I saw the destruction made to get down the basso-relievos on the walls of the frieze. Each stone as it fell shook the ground with its ponderous weight, with a deep hollow noise; it seemed like a convulsive groan of the injured spirit of the temple".

  Edward Daniel Clarke wrote:

    "Looking up, we saw with regret the gap that had been made, which all the ambassadors of the earth, with all the sovereigns they represent, aided by every resource that wealth and talent can bestow, will never again repair".

  Yet hear Mr Croker of the Committee. He insisted that, I quote, "Lord Elgin laid his hand on nothing that could have been preserved in any state of repair" and that, quote, "He touched nothing that was not previously in ruins".

  He was however in favour of paying £35,000 for the ruins.

  Sergeant Best of the Committee. He said that he could not consent to this purchase lest by doing so he should render himself a partaker in the guilt of spoliation and that the firman could do nothing without bribery and could the words in which it was written admit the construction that was put upon them. It merely gave a power to view, to contemplate and draw. Did this mean that those works were to be viewed and contemplated with the design of being pulled down and removed? He did not object to the purchase on the grounds of economy but of justice.

  We know what was perceived as justice. That the marbles be purchased from citizen Elgin to be placed in the British Museum. And that from then on (Alas, poor Phidias) they were to be known as the Elgin Marbles. It was he who saved them from the barbarous Turks.

  I think it just to address scrutiny to the conduct of the savior.

  Lusieri on having sawed away the eighth metope, yes they were torn away with giant saws, writes to Elgin: "This piece has caused much trouble. I have been obliged to be a little barbarous".

  In another letter to Elgin he protested: "But Sir to touch the pediment of the side west and to also take away a Caryatid. After that I would have to hide myself from the whole world".

  Thomas Lacey a captain in the Royal Engineers was unhappy to be quartered in Egypt for more than two years. He wrote this to Reverend Hunt: "Congratulate me. I have found a way to escape from the mission. In two days I embark for Athens to plunder temples and commit sacrilege. A proper finish to my career".

  One of the glories on the Acropolis is the Erechtheion building-also known as the Caryatid Porch. Lord Elgin actually sought to remove the entire building, Lusieri fearful, warned him it would be better to try to obtain a firman, quote, "because the Turkish and Greeks are extremely attached to it". Elgin dismissed Lusieri's fears but now he needed a bigger ship. I quote from a letter to Lord Keith the naval Commander-in-Chief: "If you could allow a ship of war of size to stop a couple of days in Athens to get away a most valuable piece of architecture at my disposal (sic) you would confer upon me the greatest obligation I could have. Bonaparte has not received any such thing from all his thefts in Italy".

  At that time Lord Keith could not spare such a ship. So the porch was put to the saw and one of the Caryatides was torn away. As were a column, 17 pediment statues and 56 slabs from the frieze.

  Please understand. I think it was good that the Marbles were placed in the museum. I dread to think how Elgin might have disposed of them. But let me return just one more time to the Select Committee. And a voice heard that was derided and mocked. I refer to Mr Hammersly.

  He strongly denounced the Elgin transaction with words of "bribery, spoliation and disgrace". He deplored that a British Ambassador had taken advantage of the success over the French in Egypt to plunder the city of Athens.

  He proposed that a communication should be immediately made stating that Great Britain holds these Marbles only in trust until they are demanded by the present or of any future possessors of the city of Athens. And upon such demand engages without question or negotiation to restore them to the place from where they had been taken and that they shall in the meantime be carefully preserved in the British Museum.

  Mr Croker, among others, declared this a farcical and absurd resolution.

  Mr Banks asked should the Marbles be shipped back to those who set no value upon them.

  Perpetuated by some even until today is the insult to injury; that to the dismantling of the monument the Greeks were indifferent.

  As soon as Greece won its independence, the Government made demands for the return of the Marbles.

  George Seferis the Nobel prize poet (in the 1960s ambassador to London) wrote of a beloved leader of the revolution, General Makriyannis, who had no education and in his old age taught himself to read, had been able to preserve two ancient statues until the liberation. At that time he found that some soldiers were thinking of selling them.

  Seferis quotes Makriyannis: "I took these soldiers aside and told them this: You must not give away these things, not even for ten thousand talers; you must not let them leave the country; it was for them we fought".

  And Seferis wrote: "You see it is not a great scholar, nor an archaeologist speaking. It is a shepherd's son from Roumelia, his body covered with wounds "It was for them we fought".

  And another Greek Nobel Prize poet Odysseus Elytis made plea for the return as did Konstantinos Kavafy and Nikos Kazantzakis.

  During the struggle in 1821 the Greeks were besieging the Turks who were on the Acropolis. The Greeks learned that the Turks, low on ammunition, were melting down the clamps of the columns to remove the lead, in order to make them into bullets. The Greeks sent them a message "don't touch these columns. We will send you bullets". And they did.

  In 1890 Fredrick Harrison in an article in the London Magazine "The Nineteenth Century" wrote, 1 quote, "The Parthenon Marbles are to the Greek nation a thousand times more dear and more important than they can ever be to the English nation".

  I quote to you from the conclusion of the Select Committee Report;

    "If it is true, as we learn from history and experience that free governments afford a soil most suitable to the growth of every species of excellence no country than ours can be better adapted to afford honorable asylum to these monuments of the school of Phidias and the administration of Pericles".

  These words were preceded by the tribute to, I quote. "The importance and splendor to which so small a republic of Athens rose by the genius and energy of her citizens that immortalized its name".

  I think it is bitter and wounding to the Greek spirit to be offered soothing calm and fulsome praise at a time when true respect and gratitude could have been rendered to Greek achievements.

  This was 1816. The decisive blow struck for Greek independence was but five years away. England and all of Europe knew that the liberation winds were gathering force and provisional plans were being made in European capitals. Back when the Elgin crews were busily tearing down sculptures from the temple, Elgin's architects urged more speed. He wrote to Elgin, I quote, "It appears uncertain for how long Greece will remain under its present master".

  Indeed the Anglo Turkish alliance came to a hostile end in 1806. It was in 1808 when John Cam Hobhouse travelling with Lord Byron in northern Greece was told by the man in Ioannina "You English are carrying off the works of our forefathers. Preserve them well. Greeks will come and redemand them".

  So in 1816 the Hammersly proposal, to hold them in trust for a free Greece, was made with clarity of vision and good sense. He was ridiculed and insulted and no one considered that the free government that took over the Marbles from Citizen Elgin, whose warships carried away the booty, could be accomplice to Ambassador Elgin.

  The vote to acquire the Marbles was 82 to 30. Yet I take comfort that in 1816 more than one third of Parliament opposed the motion. I take such comfort because it was only in 1832 that the reform bill was passed. The bill that was necessitated by glaring inequalities in representation. Such large industrial centres as Birmingham and Manchester were unrepresented while parliamentary members were continuously returned from numerous so-called "rotten boroughs" which were virtually uninhabited rural districts, and from "pocket boroughs" where a single powerful landowner or peer could control the voting. The sparsely populated country of Cornwall returned 44 members while the city of London returned only four members.

  Such was the composition and character of the Parliament that voted that Greece could no longer have claim to its most sacred treasures. Today you are an enlightened nation. It is my dearest hope and the hope of the Greek people that today's Select Committee proposes to its Parliament that the vote be reconsidered and that when the New Acropolis Museum now being prepared is ready to receive them that they be returned to the country by whom and for whom they were made.

  Your Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Mr Chris Smith on refusing the return said that the Marbles were part of the British culture for 200 years. Need we say that they are the cherished Greek heritage for 2,500 years.

  I close by quoting from what Melina Mercouri said in a debate at Oxford.

    "You must understand what the Parthenon Marbles mean to us. They are our pride. They are our noblest symbol of excellence. They are our thankful tribute to democracy.

    England and Greece are friends. English blood was shed on Greek soil in the war against fascism, and Greeks gave their lives to protect English pilots. Read Churchill; he tells you how crucial was the Greek role in your decisive desert victory over Rommel.

    We say to the British Government. You have kept these Sculptures for almost two centuries. You have cared for them as well as you could, for which we thank you. But now in the name of fairness and morality, please give them back. Such a gesture from Great Britain would ever honor your name".

May 2000

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