The Elgin affair : the abduction of Antiquity's greatest treasures and the passions it aroused

by Theodore Vrettos

Paper Book, 1997




New York : Boston : Arcade Pub. ; Distributed by Little, Brown, c1997.


Almost two hundred years after they were "purchased" from Greece, the finest and most famous marbles of antiquity still remain a burning issue. This compelling, controversial story of the Elgin marbles re-creates in full and colorful detail "the greatest art theft in history," a steamy tale of obsession, intrigue, adultery, and ruin. As the British ambassador to the Sublime Porte in Constantinople, Lord Elgin encountered in his endeavors some of the most famous names of nineteenth-century history: Napoleon, Sultan Selim III, Lord Nelson, Lord Byron, and Keats. Drawing on original source material--letters, diaries, official government reports, and memoranda, Vrettos brilliantly brings to life these fascinating stories.

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From 1801 to 1812, the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, acquired some of the greatest sculptures in the Western world. His agents loaded priceless pieces of art onto barges and boats so that he could sell them to the British Museum for safekeeping. By 1812, he had removed 17 statues, 15 metope panels, 247 feet of frieze, and several other pieces of the Parthenon from Greece. Needless to say, this was all highly suspect and entirely illegal. Theodore Vrettos’s The Elgin Affair chronicles the history of the displacement and how the selfishness of a single 19th century official can lead to strained relations two hundred years later.

Vrettos’s history starts with Napoleon at the close of the 18th century and follows the life of Lord Elgin as through his youth, his ambassadorship, his rocky marriage, and his underhanded acquisitions. Very few can argue that Elgin’s transfer of the pieces from Greece to England was legal, and the intricate and shady methods he employed hammers the point home. None of his documentation had original signatures, and he basically forced the British Parliament to buy the pieces for the Museum. Lord Byron himself protested to the acquisition. But since interest in classical Greece was picking up just around this time, the marbles found a ready audience in the British public, and thus they have stayed in the British Museum to this day.

This book doesn’t go through the nuanced legal arguments that some make to prove whether the pieces truly belonged to the Ottoman Empire or whether Great Britain had any right to purchase them at all. It is more about the machinations of the theft itself, the sheer audacity of Lord Elgin to remove them in the first place. The story is interesting and the detail rich. Most people who know anything about Greek sculpture know about the Elgin Marbles, but this book places them in a deeper historical context. If you’re a fan of art history, then this will entertain you for a short time. An enjoyable read.
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