History of the Marbles

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The Story of the Elusive Firman

In spite of claims by Elgin's men at the time of the removals, and the British Museum in later and recent years, no "firman" was ever produced either at the Select Committee in 1816 or in later years when serious doubts were expressed about the existence of a firman in the first place (See below: The firman and the legitimacy of the acquisition). The only written evidence is that of an Italian translation of an "official letter" now in the possession of William St. Clair, a Cambridge historian. However, the following is the account of the granting of a so-called "firman" as given in evidence at the Select Committee in 1816 and repeated ever since by all who wish to retain the Marbles in Britain.

The first firman was issued in May 1801 and appears to have been sent directly to the Ottoman officials in Athens through Ottoman channels. Its contents have never been known but one can surmise that it allowed Elgin's team access to the Acropolis to draw, erect scaffolding and make moulds.

This was soon deemed insufficient by the team. So Hunt asked for a second firman that would give them permission 'to dig, to take away any sculptures or inscriptions which do not interfere with the works or walls of the citadel'. Granted on 6 July 1801, this alleged firman - or 'official letter' as the Select Committee calls it - was discovered in its Italian translation by William St.Clair in the Hunt papers held by the family. It authorises Elgin 'to remove some stones with inscriptions and figures'. Even by these terms, Lord Elgin was given per mission to copy, draw, mould and dig around the Parthenon but not to saw sculptures off the monument.

A month later, in August 1801, Hunt asked the Voivode to allow him to take down the metopes from the Parthenon, a move that even Logotheti, the Greek Vice-Consul of Britain in Athens was reluctant to approve. The event was witnessed and described by Edward Daniel Clarke (1769-1822), a British scholar, traveller and coin collector in his Travels Part II, section 2, p.483. 'One of the workmen' he writes 'came to inform Don Batista that they were going to lower the metopes. We saw this fine piece of sculpture raised from its station between the triglyphs: but while the workmen were endeavouring to give it a position adapted to the line of descent, a pair of adjoining masonry was loosened by the machinery and down came the fine masses of Pentelican marble scattering their white fragments with thundering noise among the ruins. The Disdar, seeing this, could no longer restrain his emotions; he actually took his pipe from his mouth and letting fall a tear, said in a most emphatic tone of voice 'telos.' ['The end!' or 'Never again!'] positively declaring that nothing should induce him to consent to any further dilapidations of the building'.