Book review: Who Owns History? Elgin’s Loot and the Case for Returning Plundered Treasure

By Geoffrey Robertson Hardback, 320 pages. Biteback Publishing (2019) ISBN 9781785905216.

Reviewed by David Langwallner


Geoffrey Robertson QC has written a new book which indicates that his autobiographies are a bit like the many retirements of Frank Sinatra; and a very significant work it is. Full of oblique arguments and tangential reflections but focused on the popular as is his want; in this case, whether the UK looted the treasures of Greece by keeping the Elgin Marbles and is thus proactively committing a crime against humanity and breach of a universal human rights obligation. (Ideally litigable before the ICJ so that Robertson can revisit the case after the disappointment of neglected advice in 2011.)

At one level the book is about British colonialism; in particular, Lord Elgin and the dubious figure he was. Robertson mercilessly sets out his profiteering, complicity with Hunt and Aga in negotiating a false permit which occluded his stripping of assets from the Parthenon, and his ultimate disgrace, penury and bankruptcy. This is a civilised objection which I share to licensed barbarism and the pliability and corruption of officialdom. The analogy could be extended to all sorts of privateering contracts.

Ultimately, Elgin was a chancer who got his comeuppance but whether such property crimes are at any level of equivalence to the other crimes against humanity that Robertson has written extensively about, and which he references here, is not made out – nor is it intended to be. (Though it did lead me to think that crimes against humanity could include economicide; and that a Greek pensioner driven to suicide may not care that much about the Marbles.)

The legal question of the book, then, is that of reparation. In essence, his argument proceeds that the Elgin Marbles part of Greek heritage should be restored to Greece to undo the damage that has been done. Given UN conventions, Robertson argues that this is a breach of an obligation erga omnes and that UK legislation, hurriedly passed ex post facto and glossing over criminality to preserve the assets of the British Museum, should be bypassed.

Robertson moves from the general to the particular, from free-floating abstraction to legal exactitude, with a level of grace, erudition and elegance possessed by few writers. Even though one may not always agree with what he is doing, or be puzzled as to why he is doing it, one is dazzled by it.

Indeed, the cultural historian may have taken over and he delights, as do I, in cultural tourism. In fact, his late friend John Mortimer’s splendid novel Summer’s Lease encouraged me to visit the Piero della Francesca trail in Umbria and as Mortimer’s logical successor to cultural commissar of the UK legal profession, perhaps his detour is unsurprising.

The book goes on, brilliantly, to raise larger questions such as the systemic plunder of Jewish assets by the Nazis. Spoils of war are often property theft and museums reluctant to return the Klimts or Schieles to their Jewish owners claiming, in effect, corporate/commercial entitlements devoid of moral justification. There is also interesting commentary on how works of art should be seen in their local setting and not in sanitised and often inappropriate contexts in New York or London. (See also his writings on the abrogation of aboriginal culture in Australia.)

The important point is that forgetting the past is a criminal act, as is a lack of historical consciousness, and increasingly that is what we are doing. The book is also a disquisition and a metaphor about atonement and reparation; and that victims of crime and despoliation – individual, collective or societal – need to be recompensed.

I wonder sub silentio whether he is also saying something else; not just about colonialism but neo-liberalism in that in our world it is the little people and their cultures that are overlooked, exploited and forgotten. In his own way, perhaps this is an act of remembrance, as EP Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class ‘seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan... from the enormous condescension of posterity’.

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David Langwallner

David Langwallner is a graduate of the Harvard Law School and the London School of Economics and is a barrister at 1MCB. He is a published author and writes monthly columns in the Village magazine in Ireland and the website Cassandra Voices. David was 2015 Irish Lawyer of the Year for his work as director of the Irish Innocence Project.