Geoffrey Robertson, Who Owns History? Elgin’s Loot and the Case for Returning Plundered Treasure (London: Biteback, 2019). Review by Eleni Vassilika.
Beginning with Cicero’s famous prosecution of Verres, who stole privately owned art while he was Governor in Sicily, the human rights barrister Robertson discusses recent (and promised) repatriations of cultural and human remains of indigenous peoples. He turns to examine the well-rehearsed case for the return to Greece of the Parthenon marbles, but based on various English and international laws that date from the 17th and 18th century, through UNESCO (1970) followed by a further 8 resolutions (1983, 1989, 1991, 1994, 1997, 1999, 2003, 2005), and the UN General Assembly’s 27 resolutions (since 1972), UNIDROIT (1995), plus the successive recommendations by the UK’s Foreign Office to return the Marbles (1924, 1961).
Having survived war with Sparta, the Goths, and occupation by Christians and the Ottomans (who refused others the permission to remove anything from the Parthenon in 1780 and 1795), Elgin misused his ambassadorial position in Constantinople in this private enterprise taking 56 of the 97 frieze panels, 15 metopes and 20 pedimental figures, while ‘corrupting the fidelity of the subjects of another state’ with bribes.
Elgin misrepresented to the Commons Select Committee of 1816 his permission to draw and take casts as a legal ‘Firman’ to remove them. He never ‘bought’ the sculptures from the occupiers, knowing they were not for sale. Thus, Elgin’s title of ownership remains vulnerable to the principles of private international law of assignment of movables, that would have been applied then under Sharia law in Greece. Not having paid a purchase price or one in kind in 1801-03/1810 (bribes do not count), and lacking the express permission from the Sultan, the marbles were never his. Elgin’s argument that he saved them from destruction could not function in English law, wherein a thief cannot avoid conviction by arguing that he took better care of the stolen goods than the owner. Finally if Elgin’s title was good, why did an Act of Parliament vest them with the British Museum Trustees, unless to repair their defect of ownership and to avoid challenge?
Early after independence (declared in the Peloponnese in 1822. NB: three decades before Italian statehood), repeated requests (1833; 1836; 1844) were made for the return of the Marbles to Greece. (NB: The Greek Archaeological Service was created in 1835). There are no time bars in international law, and thus the 1980 English Limitation Act that bars claims after six years would not apply under international law.
Robertson ridicules the lofty concept of the terms Enlightenment /Cosmopolitan/World/Encyclopaedic museum proffered by Neil MacGregor and James Cuno and employed to justify withholding the Marbles (‘reducing them to a tit-bit in a cultural smorgasbord’). He reminds us of MacGregor’s indelicate loan of the Parthenon’s pedimental figure of the Illisos river god to Russia in 2014 shortly after its invasion of Ukraine. He cautions us about Germany’s ‘Cultural amnesia’ with regard to colonial collections in the Humboldt Forum, where MacGregor is now associated. He is further incensed by the conversion to British nationality of the marbles through their long presence in the country and ridicules ‘the Elginisation of the Parthenon sculptures from architecture into art’.
Possible legal remedies for the Greek restitution case involve action in the International Court of Justice that has decided a state’s ‘sovereignty’ includes the right to reclaim cultural objects that provide ‘keys to their ancient history’ (so ending the concept of ‘finders’ keepers’). The Greeks might argue that their international human rights include the right to pursue their cultural identity. Locally, English civil law deems a thief and receivers to be involuntary trustees, liable for the return of property to the owner. As for the excuse that British national museums are unable to deaccession, this has been possible with human remains. A law as recently as 2009 also enables the deaccession from museums of Nazi loot (The Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act). When UNESCO asked the UK to enter into mediation with Greece over the Marbles, this was rejected outright by the BM’s trustees and by the government in March 2015. Robertson’s analyses of the elitist composition of the Trustees, leads one to understand that they do not reflect the sensitivities or will of the British people.
Robertson applies himself to a legal framework that would define the right of return. He extends his study to the public collections composed of seized cultural goods and spoils of war (Museums of blood). He warns us to avoid the words that the V&A’s Tristram Hunt employed for the Maqdala exhibition “there remains something essentially valuable about the ability of museums to position objects beyond particular cultural or ethnic identities…”.