For the last two centuries, the British Museum in London has claimed ownership of the Elgin Marbles without producing documentation that can establish beyond reasonable doubt that Lord Elgin, a Scottish diplomat, legally acquired the Parthenon sculptures from the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. Historians have struggled to ascertain the facts in what some consider the world’s most infamous case of cultural theft. Meanwhile, British authorities have consistently denied assertions that the Athenian antiquities could have crossed borders without approval from the Turks, who ruled Greece during the early 19th century.
In a recently completed manuscript entitled Trophies for the Empire, David Rudenstine, a constitutional law professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, challenges the British claim to patrimony by arguing against the country’s historical legal defenses. According to Rudenstine, British Parliament committed fraud in 1816 by purposely altering a key document during the translation process, making it appear as though Elgin had received prior authorization from Ottoman officials to remove the Parthenon marbles when he had not.
“From a lawyer’s point of view, this is fraud,” Rudenstine, who was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for a 1996 history of the Pentagon Papers, told ARTnews. “Parliament has published a report that their translation is a complete and accurate representation of the Italian document, but it’s altered.”
Reached by ARTnews, a spokesperson for the British Museum denied Rudenstine’s claims. “The trustees of the British Museum are entirely satisfied that the Parthenon Sculptures were legally acquired,” the spokesperson said.
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