William St Clair and the Firman

As a few of you may have noticed, I am not altogether thrilled with a few things at the British Museum. Many of the issues have to do with the Firman and a collection of papers which they now hold on behalf of the Nation. My fury is not recent.

William St Clair did not tell me that the Firman and assorted papers, which I suggest be called henceforth The St Clair Archive, are now in the British Museum. He seems to have been waiting for some sort of an official announcement – until recently a quick Google of “British Museum”+”Hunt Archive” produced nothing, although there is a brief mention in an Annual Report now online.

Two years or so ago, I foolishly repeated some things that a very senior member of staff there had told me about William St Clair to Dalya Alberge of The Times. I later rang her and pretty much begged her not to use the claim, which she was very gracious about. The truth of the matter is that I was angry at St Clair not because of anything he had done, but because of things I had been told he had done by the BM – they seem to operate a system sometimes where if you make someone the enemy of your enemy they will be your friend.

I have almost certainly unfairly criticised St Clair in private conversations with friends, possibly colleagues; and had Ms. Alberge run the piece where I repeated claims made by the BM member of staff, St Clair would have had a very good case against me for libel, defamation, and assorted other actions. I have since gotten to know William St Clair quite well. Although we will always disagree on certain issues, he is a very good, honest, and decent man, who has always allowed anyone access to the Archive when he possessed it (this has been confirmed to me by many people; he did not deny me access to the Papers, I was just accidentally given the wrong address to write to him …), and I would like to take this opportunity to apologise for anything I may have said about William St Clair.

I would also like to apologise to friends, colleagues and readers for unintentionally and foolishly passing on some of the BM's propaganda. In some ways some of the pro-Greek Restitutionists have been a lot better about providing me with information, and presenting documents and copies of letters to back up their claims. For example, William has recently written to Mrs Eleni Cubbitt and others to explain his position on the St Clair Archive and the British . Since he has said that we are welcome to use the letter, I have published it in full below

The party referred to was, I assume, the launch of a new edition of Christopher Hitchens’ book The Parthenon Marbles: The Case for Reunification - my invitation presumably got lost in the post. The description of how the export licence process was explained by Christie’s must be incorrect, since this is not how the process works, and such an eminent auction house would surely not have made such a basic mistake in explaining it? Obviously it’s my fault the news came out, because I was told about the sale by someone from the Society of Dilettanti, and subsequently had a lengthy conversation about it with someone from Christie’s. I’m also a little surprised that the Director, Neil MacGregor, is only just informing St Clair that the Firman will soon be put on display – wonder if he’ll be invited to the launch party for it?

30 May 2008
Mrs Eleni Cubbitt

Dear Eleni

It was lovely to see you and other friends at the party on Friday. Many thanks for a fascinating evening. As I mentioned to one or two people, it was only on that day that I received some news about the firman. You said that you would welcome a letter that can be used if anyone inquires. Although I do not intend to make an announcement as such, you are welcome to pass this letter to anyone who may be interested. I am sorry that, to give the full story, it has to be so long.

The Firman
As has been publicly known since 1967, I was formerly the possessor of an archive of papers of Philip Hunt, who, as Elgin’s agent, arranged the first removals of pieces of sculpture from the Parthenon in 1801. Among the papers is the Italian (actually lingua franca) version of the so-called ‘firman’, the document that was given to Elgin by the Ottoman Government, was used by Hunt in Athens, and played a crucial part in the 1816 Select Committee’s recommendation to Parliament that Elgin’s collection should be purchased by the nation. A translation into English made from the document, which Hunt lent to Parliament for the purpose, was published with the 1816 report, and a transcription of the Italian version is included in the third edition of my book.

From the time when I first discovered the existence of the papers, I have been aware of their importance in the history of the Parthenon and their potential relevance to the status of the Parthenon sculptures at present held in the British Museum.

Although there is a body of academic and other writings about the firman, some of questionable value, many questions remain unanswered. The status of the document, for example, can only be determined by patiently building an understanding of Ottoman law and practice at the time it was written. And as with other complex historical documents, its interpretation requires specialised historical knowledge and skills.*

During the decades when the papers were in my possession, many scholars and others have consulted them. No-one, not even a few who came just to gape, was refused access. Theodore Vrettos, incidentally, who claimed to have consulted the papers, never asked and, we can be sure, never saw them. As I explained in letters published in the Times Literary Supplement, the papers were kept in an archive box under my bed.

The interpretation of the firman, I need hardly say, is not affected in the slightest degree by the location where it is held. Nor is the location in any way relevant to questions about the status and future of the Parthenon sculptures presently held in the British Museum. What is relevant, if advances in our understanding of the document are to continue to take place, is that the archive is preserved and made available for study in an apolitical environment in a public institution.

It was considerations such as these that were in my mind when, a few years ago, I decided, for family reasons, to sell some of my library as well as other possessions. I was professionally advised that, given the national importance of the Hunt archive, and the need to prevent any risk of its being dispersed either now or in the future, I should arrange a private sale to the nation under the scheme that aims to preserve historical British archives. Incidentally, I was also advised that, if I were to put the papers on the market and they were bought by an overseas buyer, an export licence would be refused and the fraught process that occurs in such circumstances would take years to bring to a conclusion.

Among the items sold were letters, diaries, a book of amateur drawings, manuscripts and other unique materials relating to the history of the Parthenon that I had acquired over the years and that do not form part of the Hunt archive. My collection included, for example, the manuscript of an unknown Frenchman’s description of Athens in 1699, the only account known of the Parthenon as it existed after the bombardment of 1687 and before the extensive Ottoman works on the Acropolis that took place in the early 18th century.* To describe the collection as the ‘Hunt Archive’ is therefore inaccurate.

A full catalogue was prepared, with my help, by an acknowledged professional expert in historical manuscripts employed by Christies.

Sale to the nation
My strong preference was that the papers should be deposited in the British Library which has a high reputation among scholars for the qualities that scholars value, notably its professional expertise, online cataloguing, care and conservation of manuscripts, experts on hand, eagerness to help, and of course access at all normal opening times, as a matter of right, without fuss. But, since all British national institutions holding publicly owned assets in trust, including the British Museum, are bound by the same public service standards and requirements, this was not a decision which I was able to influence. The sale was completed in June 2006.

The papers were deposited in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities of the British Museum, which, incidentally, as is not generally known, holds other manuscripts and other unique materials that can only be accessed by scholars by making special application, and to which access has not always been readily granted even in recent times.

The announcement
At the time of the sale I stipulated that it should be part of the contract that the terms of the announcement should be agreed with me, something that I might have expected as a courtesy in any case, but which I thought it worthwhile to make explicit. However a few weeks ago I heard that news of the transfer had become known, leaked out – I am told - by someone in one of the funding bodies who had assumed, reasonably enough, that something agreed so long ago must have been announced. I accordingly wrote at once to Mr Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, asking for his proposals for making the announcement.

Mr MacGregor replied on 19 May 2008 to say that an announcement had recently – no date given - already been made in the British Museum Review 2006/7, the text of which he told me is now available on the Museum website. He offered no explanation for, nor apology for, breaking the terms and conditions of the sale.

He did however say that ‘subject to our usual procedures, [the papers are] freely available for study and all scholars are allowed access.’ Although that is not something that a public museum should need to say, given past experience, it is welcome.

Putting the firman on display
Mr MacGregor tells me in his letter that ‘we plan to exhibit the firman and one of the Hunt letters for a short period in summer this year, and we intend to display other documents in the future. Due to conservation requirements, the firman is unable to be on display permanently, and will later be replaced by a photograph. An article about the firman is currently being written by Dr Dyfri Williams and this will also appear on our website, along with images, a transcription and a translation.’

This all seems reasonable, although the credentials of Dr Williams to write with any authority on the firman may be questioned. As a former keeper in the department of Greek and Roman Antiquities – his specialism was ancient pottery - he was deeply implicated in the scandals and broken public promises of a few years ago. I am led to wonder whether the reason why the news that the papers are now in the Museum has been kept under wraps for two years may be more than bureaucratic delay? Was the announcement held back, and the needs of scholarship set aside, so that the Museum might claim to have something new to say when the New Acropolis Museum is opened?

And, I wonder, what else may be contemplated? Your committee should, I suggest, take this latest breaking of a commitment as a warning. But the wider scholarly community, the funding bodies, the press, and the general public, all have a direct interest in holding the Museum, and the present director, to the scholarly and ethical standards that we are entitled to expect? If we detect any attempt to use the historical documents to try to manipulate attitudes to the question of return, we should expose it at once.

Yours sincerely


William St Clair FBA, FRSL, Senior Research Fellow, School of Advanced Study, University of London

Current website at Trinity College, Cambridge

* The results of my own most recent researches were published in ‘Imperial Appropriations of the Parthenon’ in John Merryman, editor, Art, Imperialism and Restitution (Cambridge 2006).
* Published by William St Clair, and Robert Picken ‘The Parthenon in 1687’ in Michael Cosmopoulos, editor, The Parthenon and its Sculptures (Cambridge 2004).

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