Laws, democracy and hypocrisy

The Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum in London, on November 28, 2023. [ANDY RAIN/EPA]

"These were legally acquired at the time." Of all the sound bites heard during this week's furor on the Parthenon Sculptures, that one (attributed to a spokesman for Rishi Sunak) is among the most depressing.

There are several ways to respond.

First, there are some interesting arguments about the various, wildly contradictory documents that were issued by the Ottoman officials during the period when the marbles were extracted and transported to England.

One of those documents, penned in June 1801, apparently authorized Lord Elgin's associates to collect "some pieces of stone" lying around the Acropolis. But, as they admitted, they exploited a sweet moment in Anglo-Ottoman relations to stretch outrageously the meaning of that text - and systematically strip the Parthenon, using threats and bribes to silence objectors.

The fundamental...

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