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Lord Elgin Paid No British Customs Tax on Parthenon Sculptures, Letters Suggest

parthenon marbles british museum
Elgin Paid No British Customs Tax on Parthenon Sculptures, Letters Suggest. Credit: Marcio Cabral de Moura, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

New evidence presented by a historian at Cambridge University suggests that Lord Elgin never paid British customs tax when he brought the Parthenon sculptures to the United Kingdom.

Daniel Simpson, a postdoctoral research assistant at the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, uncovered a series of 19th-century letters which prove that Elgin deliberately underplayed the significance and value of his consignments from Greece, aided by the Foreign Secretary at the time, Viscount Castlereagh.

According to The Guardian, which published the letters, it is claimed that thanks to Castlereagh’s instructions to officials in 1812, Elgin, who was no longer a diplomat, managed to import eighty-six cases of sculptures as “trifling antiques and marbles” instead of “sculptured marbles and curiosities” to avoid paying the high rates of custom duty.

The correspondence suggests that Elgin had previously brought more shipments to Britain duty free.

Simpson, who uncovered the letters among customs records at the National Archives in Kew, believes Castlereagh may have hoped to eventually acquire the sculptures for the nation as subsequently happened in 1816.

Castlereagh was the key figure in persuading the British Parliament to purchase the sculptures, Simpson told The Guardian. The historian supports that the early 19th-century foreign minister probably always intended the marbles to become part of the national collection and used Elgin as a convenient means of separating government from the controversial practice of taking them from the Parthenon.

Although Dr. Keith Hamilton, a former Foreign Office historian also approached by The Guardian, does not see the letters as cast-iron proof of British government involvement, Geoffrey Robertson KC, a leading barrister and advocate for the sculptures’ return, thinks otherwise.

According to Robertson, the new letters “add to the considerable evidence that the British government was responsible, in law, for Elgin’s heist, an [unauthorized] removal he achieved by copious bribery of local Turkish officials.”

The international campaign for the repatriation of the Parthenon sculptures has gained new dynamic since September 2021, when UNESCO urged the United Kingdom to review its position and enter into a discussion with Greece.

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