Lord Elgin paid no British customs tax on Parthenon marbles, letters reveal

3 months ago 20

Lord Elgin imported the Parthenon marbles into Britain without paying customs taxation aft the overseas caput intervened connected his behalf, recently discovered letters reveal.

The documents, dating from the aboriginal 19th century, amusement that aft helium controversially stripped them from the frieze of the Parthenon successful Athens, Elgin was helped to bring immense shipments of the sculptures to Britain by the elder minister, who “knew what Elgin was up to”, according to a historiographer of the period.

The letters besides amusement Elgin deliberately underplayed the worth of the spectacular sculptures, the removal of which was highly contentious adjacent then, describing 1 consignment successful 1803 arsenic “trifling antiques and marbles”.

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It emerged Elgin was supported by Viscount Castlereagh. Photograph: Supplied

Elgin intended to show the sculptures successful his stately location successful Scotland, but wanted to debar paying the precocious rates of customs work levied connected “sculptured marbles and curiosities”, which would person amounted to tens of thousands of pounds successful today’s money.

It has present emerged helium was supported by Viscount Castlereagh, the past overseas secretary, who instructed officials successful 1812 to let him to import a immense consignment of 86 cases of the marbles “in the aforesaid mode arsenic the erstwhile portion of his collection, work free”.

The historiographer who recovered the letters believes Castlereagh whitethorn person hoped yet to get the sculptures for the nation, arsenic subsequently happened successful 1816 aft the cash-strapped Elgin was forced to sell.

Castlereagh was the cardinal fig persuading the British parliament to bargain the marbles – itself a highly arguable enactment that was lampooned astatine the time.

“In my presumption Castlereagh astir apt ever intended the marbles to go portion of the nationalist collection, and utilized Elgin arsenic a convenient mode of separating authorities from the arguable signifier of taking them from the Parthenon,” said Daniel Simpson, a postdoctoral probe adjunct astatine the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, who uncovered the letters among customs records astatine the National Archives successful Kew.

Letter astir  Parthenon Marbles
The historiographer who recovered the letters believes Castlereagh whitethorn person hoped yet to get the sculptures for the nation. Photograph: handout

If so, “this [would] implicate the authorities much intimately successful the statement astir the destiny of the marbles contiguous – the authorities was much liable for taking them than has been assumed”.

The sculptures person been connected show astatine the British Museum since soon aft their acquisition and person remained hotly disputed ever since, with Greece continuing to request they are handed back. The depository has proposed a “partnership” with Greece that could perchance effect successful the marbles being loaned to the Acropolis Museum successful Athens, though Liz Truss said this week she was not successful favour of the sculptures’ return.

Dr Keith Hamilton, a erstwhile Foreign Office historian, told the Guardian that the notation successful the 1803 missive – written by a civilian servant to customs officers based connected Elgin’s submissions – to “some trifling … marbles” was “certainly a sizeable understatement” which showed Elgin was trying to exploit his presumption arsenic a diplomat to debar tax.

The 1812 missive “does … bespeak that Castlereagh knew what Elgin was up to”, said Hamilton. “He was good alert of the prime and quantity of Elgin’s ‘purchases’, and helium whitethorn precise good person had anterior cognition of the erstwhile ambassador’s intentions.”

However, Hamilton said the missive did not connection cast-iron impervious of British authorities engagement of “what immoderate would spot arsenic plunder”. Elgin was nary longer a diplomat past and it is imaginable the involution by Castlereagh was “the benignant of happening that successful 1812 and aboriginal 1 man did for another”, helium said.

Letter astir  Parthenon Marbles
Dr Keith Hamilton says the find has not offered cast-iron impervious of British authorities engagement successful ‘what immoderate would spot arsenic plunder’. Photograph: handout

Geoffrey Robertson KC, a starring barrister and advocate for the marbles’ return, said the caller letters “add to the sizeable grounds that the British authorities was responsible, successful law, for Elgin’s heist, an unauthorised removal helium achieved by copious bribery of section Turkish officials truthful they would crook a unsighted oculus portion his workmen ripped the statues from the temple walls. In planetary law, the behaviour of an ambassador engages the work of his state.

“These caller documents amusement that the authorities aided and abetted the theft by permitting the marbles to participate without customs inspection oregon duties.”

In a statement, the British Museum said it “follows each caller probe into the past of its postulation with interest. We are unfastened and transparent astir the practice of objects successful our imperishable collection. Establishing the provenance of an entity has been an integral portion of the museum’s acquisition process for decades.”

A spokesperson for the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said: “The Parthenon sculptures successful the British Museum are legally owned by the trustees of the museum, which is operationally autarkic of government. Decisions relating to the attraction and absorption of its collections are a substance for the trustees.”