Lord Elgin’s Looting


He’s perhaps the most famous looter in history. Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, while serving as the rather grandly titled “Ambassador Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of His Britannic Majesty to the Sublime Porte of Selim III, Sultan of Ottoman Empire,” carried off half of the ancient treasures of the Parthenon and the Acropolis.

From 1801 to 1812, Lord Elgin carted off about half of the remaining Parthenon Frieze, the bas-relief which decorated the horizontal course set above the interior architrave of the temple, 15 of the 92 metopes that decorated the Parthenon and numerous sculptures. This old black and white photo by WC is a panel from the Amazonomachy on the west wall of the Parthenon.

Parthenon Frieze, Panel XX, part of the Elgin Marbles, British Museum (Photo by Frozen Feather Images, 1972)

Amazonomachy, Pathenon Metopes, Panel 9, part of the Elgin Marbles, British Museum (Photo by Frozen Feather Images, 1972)

It’s hard to overstate the incredible power of these works. The horses in the cavalcade in the Frieze are especially powerful.

But it was theft, enabled by venal Ottoman bureaucrats, bribes and the power of Great Britain in the world at the time. Greece had been conquered by the Ottoman Empire centuries earlier. The Ottomans were, at best, indifferent caretakers of the Greek antiquities. Much of the damage to the Parthenon and its marble treasures were a result of the Turks’ decision to store gunpowder there; when it was shelled by the Venetians, the gunpowder exploded wreaking havoc and turning the Parthenon from an almost-intact structure to a ruin.

The British have their own version of Lord Elgin’s larceny. As a piece of rationalization it’s in a class by itself.

It’s also true that Lord Elgin’s theft likely saved some or all of the works. At the time, some of the pieces may have been broken down and “cooked” to make lime. And, apart from an unfortunate incident in 1938, the Elgin marbles at the British Museum have been better cared for than the pieces left in Athens.

WC doesn’t propose to argue on the side of the Greeks or the British. The Parthenon is a ruin now and neither nation can show the Elgin marbles in their true context. Lord Elgin fenced them – at quite a reasonable price – to the British Museum. There’s an ongoing international dispute, supposedly being mediated by UNESCO. WC wishes UNESCO luck.

In the meantime, WC urges that if a reader visits London, save a day for the British Museum and, in particular, the Duveen Gallery, where the Elgin loot is beautifully displayed. It may be classic, and hopelessly out of context, but it still carries a punch.

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