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
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
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
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
So to the third point. Was the transaction proper
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
Englandparticularly 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
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
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
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
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
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
I quote to you from the conclusion of the Select
"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
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
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".