Tiffany Jenkins’s article on the Parthenon Marbles (Perspective, 15 February) is long on pragmatism and short on principle. Citing the case of the Benin Bronzes – booty taken when British soldiers wrecked and burned an African king’s palace and city, killing hundreds and looting these beautiful sculptures – she reckons we shouldn’t judge these things by “contemporary mores”.
I say the biggest reason to restore looted treasures to their rightful owners is that it would show we have progressed since the dark days of Empire. We’ve learned that colonists hunting Aboriginals as animals and sending their heads back to museums in London and Edinburgh was wrong, and is the reason why we were cursed by the peoples “o the lands we’ve harried”.
But Ms Jenkins’s most outrageous statement is that “Lord Elgin neither looted nor stole the sculptures”. She maintains he obtained them by virtue of a “firman” of authorisation from the Ottoman rulers of Athens, but concedes that this may seem a “bit dodgy now”.
Bit dodgy hardly describes the reality, whereby, if there was a firman at all, it was never produced to the Westminster parliamentary committee that examined the petition by Thomas, the penniless 7th Earl of Elgin, hawking his ill-gotten gains.
The committee accepted Elgin’s evidence of having travelled with the firman from the Porte (Ottoman ruler), which, he said, he gave to the authorities in Athens in 1801, but Elgin did not visit Athens until a full year later.
Unlike Ms Jenkins, I am motivated by contemporary mores and have complained twice, in 2004 and 2009, to the Metropolitan Police that the British Museum harbours loot from the Parthenon and many other sites.
I have also complained to the police in Scotland on similar grounds that stelea (grave markers) housed in Broomhall, the home of the Elgins, where they decorate the walls along with other booty from the Summer Palace, taken when it was sacked in 1860 by another Elgin, James, the eighth earl.
Now there is a new chief constable in the Met and a new dynamic national force in Scotland I will renew my efforts to have the booty restored to the rightful owners, and intend to complain for a third time.