Turkey Challenges Legitimacy of Lord Elgin's Permission to Take Parthenon Marbles at UNESCO Meeting

Parthenon Marbles British Museum

ANKARA – At a United Nations cultural arm meeting again hearing the case of the stolen Parthenon Marbles, Turkey’s spokesperson denied that the Scottish diplomat who took them, Lord Elgin, had permission from the then-ruling Ottoman Empire.

“We are not aware of any document legitimizing this purchase,” Zeynep Boz, who heads the Turkish Culture Ministry’s department for combating trafficking in antiquities, told the UNESCO committee that oversees restitution cases.

Elgin claimed he had obtained permission in a firman, a decree, to take the marbles early in the 19th Century, stating it included being allowed “to take away any pieces of stone with old inscriptions or figures thereon.”

The document, translated into Italian by the British Embassy in Constantinople at the time, is now in the hands of the British Museum, which uses it to claim ownership of the marbles purchased from Elgin when he got into financial trouble.

However, no official copy of the firman has yet been found in the Turkish government archives from the imperial era, and debate continues to this day over the legal status of the document. Greece insists the marbles were stolen, and that Turkey had no right to give away property it didn’t own.

For 40 years, the UNESCO committee has essentially been hearing the same arguments between Greece and the museum, but Boz’s comments could undermine the British claim of having legally obtained the treasures stolen from 1801-12.

Boz blamed the British, stating that the marbles were taken by “UK Colonialists,” and added, “I don’t think there’s room to discuss its legality, even during the time and under the law of the time,” reported Kathimerini.

“We wholeheartedly look forward to celebrating the return of the sculptures, as we believe it will mark a change of behavior towards the protection of cultural property and be the strongest message given globally,” Boz added.

Turkey participated in the meeting as an observer. Artemis Papathanasiou, head of the Greek Foreign Ministry Department for International Law, said that Boz had “raised an important question.”

Greece had challenged the legality of the firman that the British Museum waves every time its claim is questioned, with Greece being offered only a loan of the treasures in return for sending other artifacts to be held hostage in the meantime.

“It is just a simple document,” said the director of the Acropolis Museum, Nikolaos Stampolidis, who was part of the Greek delegation in Paris where the meeting was held, with the committee again telling both sides to figure something out.

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