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Lord Elgin and the Parthenon Sculptures

Lord Elgin (Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin) took up the post of ambassador to Constantinople (Istanbul), the capital of the Ottoman Empire, in 1799. Mainland Greece was then part of that Empire, and had been for most of the time since 1456.


Wishing to improve the arts of Great Britain, Elgin assembled a group of architects, painters, draughtsmen and moulders to make casts and drawings of Greek monuments. They began work in Athens in 1800. The following year, Elgin was granted a firman (letter of instruction) that required the authorities in Athens not to hinder his employees in this work, and in addition allow them to 'take away any pieces of stone with inscriptions or figures'. A further firman was secured by Sir Robert Adair in February 1810 which instructed the authorities in Athens to allow the embarkation of all the remaining antiquities collected by Elgin.

It is a popular misconception that Elgin purchased the antiquities. In fact the firman was granted to him 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 continuing destruction of classical sculpture in Athens prompted Elgin to rescue for posterity what sculptures he could. The Parthenon had been reduced to a ruin over a hundred years previously, in 1687, during the Venetian siege of the Acropolis. The defending Ottoman Turks were using the Parthenon as a gunpowder store, which was ignited by the Venetian bombardment. The explosion destroyed the roof and parts of the walls and the colonnade.

Previously, around AD 450-500 the Parthenon had been converted into a Christian church and an apse built. It was probably at this time that the whole of the middle section of the east pediment was removed, entailing the destruction of 12 statues in all. Part of the east frieze was taken down, and almost all of the metopes on the east, north and west sides were deliberately defaced.

Elgin planned to donate his collection to the nation, but on his return to England he suffered severe financial problems. In 1810 he began formal negotiations with the British Government for the sale of his collection. In the end Elgin agreed to accept the value determined by a special Committee of the House of Commons. They held the collection to be worth £35,000 (and not the £73,600 which Elgin had requested). The Committee found that the collection had been legitimately acquired by Elgin as a private individual, and the sale went through. The collection was then vested in the Trustees of The British Museum in perpetuity, under the terms of the Local and Personal Acts 56 George III c.99 of 1816.

The Trustees now hold the Elgin collection under the terms of The British Museum Act (1963).

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