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Turkish official says no record of legitimate sale of the Parthenon Marbles

The antiquities, known as the Elgin Marbles, at the British Museum.
The antiquities, known as the Elgin Marbles, at the British Museum. Copyright Matt Dunham/Copyright 2015 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Matt Dunham/Copyright 2015 The AP. All rights reserved
By Euronews with AP
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The British Museum has maintained that Ottoman authorities granted an imperial edict allowing the sculptures to be removed, but a Turkish official has cast doubt on the document’s existence.

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A Turkish official has added fresh fuel to the fire over the Parthenon Marbles debate, questioning the existence of proof long cited by Britain that it had legally acquired the 2,500-year-old sculptures taken from the Acropolis in Athens.

Also known as the Elgin Marbles, the sculptures were removed in the early 19th century by Lord Elgin, Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire which ruled Greece at the time. Much to Greece’s chagrin, they are currently housed in the British Museum in London. 

The museum argues that Elgin’s removal of the sculptures was legal, citing an imperial edict, or ‘firman’, from Ottoman authorities allowing him to do so.

Zeynep Boz, the head of the Turkish Culture Ministry’s anti-smuggling committee, however, said that no such document has been found.

As the successor to the Ottoman Empire, “Turkey is the country that would have the archived document pertaining to things that were sold legally at that time,” Boz told The Associated Press Wednesday. “Historians have for years searched the Ottoman archives and have not been able to find a ‘firman’ proving that the sale was legal, as it is being claimed.”

The Acropolis and its museum is a popular spot for visitors to Athens, but Greece argues the Parthenon Marbles should also be on display there.
The Acropolis and its museum is a popular spot for visitors to Athens, but Greece argues the Parthenon Marbles should also be on display there.Daniel Ochoa de Olza/AP

Boz added she felt obliged to intervene during the UNESCO meeting after a British participant said in his speech that the Elgin Marbles were bought legally during the Ottoman era.

“To have remained silent would have amounted to acknowledging the British claim,” she said. “I had to say: ‘We are not aware of such a document’.”

The only known existing document referring to the imperial edict is an Italian translation.

According to Boz, though, it has “no signature, no stamp, no tughra (official seal of the sultan). Nothing to make it official. The document it allegedly refers to is nowhere to be found.”

Despite often strained relations between Turkey and Greece – making Turkey’s intervention in Greece’s favour seem somewhat unlikely – both are calling for the return of cultural artefacts removed from their territories and currently housed in museums around the world.

“There never was an Ottoman ‘firman’ granting Elgin the permission to treat the Parthenon Sculptures with the brutality with which he did,” Mendoni said Tuesday. “Turkey’s representative (at the UNESCO meeting) confirmed what the Greek side has been arguing for years. That there was no ‘firman’.”

Greek Culture Minister Lina Mendoni said the comments made at a UNESCO meeting in Paris last week bolstered Greece’s claim that the antiquities were removed illegally from the Parthenon on the Acropolis and should be returned.

A protest in Athens for the return of the Parthenon Marbles.
A protest in Athens for the return of the Parthenon Marbles.PETROS GIANNAKOURIS/AP

Mendoni said Greece remained “open to dialogue” and would continue its efforts for the return of the sculptures, which have a place set aside for them in the Acropolis Museum in Athens.

Following the comments, the British Museum said it was interested in “innovative ways of working” to resolve the dispute.

“The British Museum recognises the strong desire of Greece for the Parthenon Sculptures in London to be returned to Athens,” the statement said. “This is a question with a very long history, and we understand and respect the strong feelings that this debate commands.”

It said it was “keen to develop a new relationship with Greece — a ‘Parthenon partnership’ — and to explore the possibility of innovative ways of working (with our Greek friends) in the hope that understanding of the Parthenon Sculptures deepens and continues to inspire people across the world.”

Although the British Museum cannot legally return the sculptures permanently, its leaders have recently held talks with Greek officials about a possible compromise that could allow the sculptures to be showcased in both Athens and London.

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