Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin and ambassador of England in Constantinople, stole precious ancient sculptures from the Parthenon to take to England in the late summer of 1801, marking the beginning of the long dispute about their ownership. The Scottish diplomat was a known art collector, and the time was a very different one from our own — but even then there was a major outcry in Britain against his removing them from the Parthenon.
In May of 1800, he sent Embassy Secretary William Hamilton to Athens with six artists and craftsmen from Italy to assess the ancient monuments of Attica, especially the Parthenon. His original goal was simply to get casts from various monuments to make replicas with which to decorate his mansion in Scotland.
When the politics of the era led Turkey to align itself with Great Britain against France, however, Elgin seized the opportunity to personally benefit and acquire a huge collection of antiquities.
In 1801 he managed to obtain a letter from Kaimakam Segut Abdullah, who at that time replaced the Grand Vizier in Constantinople, urging the Ottoman authorities in Athens to allow his people to perform excavations around the Acropolis, provided they did not damage the monuments.
Lord Elgin’s ruthless dismantling of the Parthenon
From 1801 to 1804, Elgin’s crews worked on the Acropolis, causing considerable damage to the sculptures and the monument itself. They chipped away and divided up as spoils nearly half of the sculptures decorating the Parthenon, along with some architectural pieces from the structure of the building.
The first metopes from the Parthenon were removed on July 31st – August 1st, 1802 .Hoards of looted antiquities were then packed in wooden boxes and transported by sea to England.
The first 12 boxes were loaded onto Elgin’s ship, the “Mentor” — however, the ship sank into Avlemonas of Kythera, not far from Antikythera, and it took two years to recover all the crates containing the antiquities.
Elgin finally returned back to his homeland in 1806, where he was criticized by several distinguished compatriots for wresting the Greek antiquities from their rightful place. They accused him of being a common thief and a vandal who, through improper means (bribes and so on), had desecrated respected cultural monuments for his own gain.
The Parthenon sculptures eventually ended up at the British Museum, where they are exhibited to this very day. Greek governments of the past few decades have made tireless efforts to repatriate the priceless pieces of ancient Greek history — but to no avail as yet.
Even the United States has intervened on the issue, having eighteen members of the House of Representatives urge Britain to open talks “in earnest” for the return of the Elgin marbles to Greece in a letter addressed to United Kingdom PM Boris Johnson.
The letter stated “The Marbles have been the source of controversy among western allies for many decades. Greece has long wanted these Parthenon Marbles back.
“Today we write to you as members of the congressional caucus on Hellenic Issues to urge your government to negotiate with the Greek government in earnest on the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece.”
The group of congressmen, which contains both Republicans and Democrats, included the chair of the Foreign Affairs subcommittee covering Europe and the chairs of the Oversight and Rules Committees.