Professor David Rudenstine, an expert on constitutional law and Head of the Cardozo Faculty of Law at Yeshiva University New York recently published the findings of his extensive research into Elgin’s removal of the Parthenon Marbles. LINK As a result of this research Professor Rudenstine has exploded the myth that Elgin had authority in the form of an Ottoman firman to remove marbles from the structure of the Parthenon.
The firman is the first flaw exposed by Ruedenstine. A firman is by definition a decree signed by the hand of the sovereign, in this case the Ottoman Sultan. The document referred to as a firman in the Elgin affair was granted by an official standing in for the Grand Vizier, an elected official of the Porte (Ottoman Turkish government). Whatever else it could be described as, a firman it was not. However for the sake of this exercise we shall continue to use the misnomer.
It is well-known that at least two so-called ‘firmans’ were granted to Elgin’s party. The first, in 1800, gave permission to Elgin’s artists to model and draw the Parthenon, and the second granted in 1801 allowed the artists to model, draw, excavate and remove stones in the rubble on the Acropolis hill on which the Parthenon and other temples stood.
In his forensic examination of the documentary evidence available, Prof. Rudenstine found that at no time was an Ottoman document or firman produced to Parliament as evidence of the legitimacy of the removal of the marbles from the Parthenon walls.
Whatever the Select Committee of Parliament examined in 1816–if indeed they did examine any document as a committee–it was not the second Ottoman firman of 1801, but was instead either:
A/ an English translation by parliamentary staff of an Italian document that was claimed to be a translation of an Ottoman firman.
B/ an inaccurate and misleading English translation of the Italian document provided by Dr Richard Hunt, Elgin’s Chaplain and occasional Secretary.
There is no contemporaneous record of the Committee’s examination of Hunt’s copy firman as he only produced it after the Select Committee had completed their examination of evidence ‘on the record’.
By his research Professor Rudenstine has established beyond doubt that the Italian document that was owned by Hunt was not signed and had other deficiencies not translated accurately to the English version, which was enhanced to represent something that it clearly was not. All of this was to Elgin’s benefit. It is a matter of fact that the Select Committee were wrong to consider the English language document as being an accurately translated documentary link to an Ottoman firman, as there has never been hard evidence that such a document existed, let alone that it was accurately copied.
Although Professor Rudenstine stops short of labelling the actions of Elgin’s party (in unauthorised removal), and the Select Committee (in accepting flawed authority for removal) illegal, he casts doubt on the propriety of both of these actions. Professor Rudenstine gives some credence to the evidence of Elgin and Hunt. I would go further than the Professor as I have evidence that Elgin and Hunt, the only two witnesses to speak of the documents to the Select Committee, were individually or jointly party to misrepresenting another document, the Memorandum, to that committee. Consequently all of their evidence must be viewed as tainted. In short they lied to Parliament.
If I am correct with regard to the Memorandum it must follow that in attempting to dupe parliament Elgin and Hunt were guilty of fraud, and their fraud negates the legitimacy of the collection sold to parliament. It also must follow that the marbles held by the British Museum as well as other artifacts bought by Parliament in 1816 and held by others cannot be legitimate. These items–which are clearly described in the Catalogue presented to the Select Committee–have either no provenance, or provenance that is at best questionable, and probably fraudulent.
In a similar way, documents of questionable authority were accepted by the British Museum as provenance of items legitimately obtained from the art collection of Dr Arthur Feldmann, but when later scrutinised led back to Nazi officials in occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939. Despite their murky background, some of the art collection of Dr Feldmann was bought by the British Museum. Buying works of such dubious provenance shows that this supposedly august body is not particular where it gets its art works from.
The 1816 government committee that recommended purchase of Elgin’s collection for the nation were persuaded by the evidence of Elgin and Hunt, both of whom told the Select Committee in evidence that there had been no objection from the people of Athens to the removal of parts of the Parthenon structure. This is hardly surprising as Britain was the undisputed world superpower and ally of the Porte whose troops occupied Greece at that time.
Similarities between the situation in 1801 Athens and the Nazi occupied city of Brno, Czechoslovakia in 1939 are striking.
Ottoman Turkish troops requisitioned the Parthenon for use as military quarters, stole lumps of the structure for themselves and turned a blind eye to Elgin’s destruction and theft.
Nazi S.S. troops requisitioned the Feldmanns’ Brno villa for use as officers’ quarters and looted all the Feldmanns’ household goods and possessions, including the drawings collection.
The good people of Athens and Brno would no doubt have been appalled by what was happening in their home towns, but would have been too fearful of the consequences to voice objection. The Athenian who witnessed the excavation of their ancestor’s grave would probably have suffered a similar fate to Dr. Feldmann if they complained. Dr Feldmann, a successful lawyer, lost his livelihood, all of his property, and eventually his life, after being arrested, tortured, and suffering a stroke. His wife Gisela was sent to Theresienstadt and later perished at Auschwitz.
In May 2002 descendants of the Feldmanns made a claim for the return of the drawings, but the High Court ruled that the British Museums Act 1963 prevented the Museum from breaking up its collection by returning the drawings. This matter was taken up by the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, who petitioned the Spoliation Advisory Panel, a body appointed by the government to deal with looting by the Nazis during WWII.
In response to this petition the Spoliation Panel ruled that because the 4 drawings held by the British Museum could not, by law be returned, an ex gratia payment of £175,000 be made by the Museum to the Feldmanns’ heirs. And in a separate case concerning 3 Feldmann drawings obtained by the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, the panel ordered they be returned to the heirs. LINK
The Feldmann case proved that the law is an ass. Loot obtained by the Gestapo–who tortured, deported and murdered the Feldmanns for it–was unable to be repatriated because of a legal loophole arising from an Act of Parliament giving the British Museum almost absolute right of ownership. The Feldmann case highlighted this legal absurdity and triggered a change in the law when in November 2009 the Holocaust (Stolen Art) Restitution Act was introduced, giving national institutions in England and Scotland the power to return art stolen during the Nazi era. LINK
However even when the British Museum Act held sway and prevented that museum’s collection being broken up, it did not grant immunity for the crimes committed in the collection or possession of their art works. To suggest it gave all objects owned by the museum some sort of legitimacy would be to condone the Nazi gas-chambers. Similarly the 2009 Holocaust legislation only deals with restitution of items illegally obtained during World War II, it does not address the acts of those involved in taking unlawful possession of such booty, or the propriety of those museums or individuals who then took possession of it.
For the avoidance of doubt, I would make it clear that I have not asked the police to investigate whether or not the law allows the return of loot housed in the British Museum, rather I asked them to investigate the possibly fraudulent authority and other irregularities that facilitated Elgin in obtaining his collection in the first place, and made its subsequent purchase and possession illegal. The repatriation issue is a separate one and one for the politicians.
Other than the passage of time there is little difference between the questionable actions of the British Museum in obtaining and housing unsubstantiated artifacts looted from occupied countries in the two cases (Elgin & Feldmann). There is certainly no evidence to suggest that the British Museum, as custodian of the artworks, exercised due diligence in establishing the provenance in either case.