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Lord Elgin's 'Acquisitions'

Lord Elgin 'acquired' more than 170 crates of ancient marbles from Greece. He always maintained that his motive was a disinterested wish to preserve these treasures. But, as John Gould discovered, his letters reveal a rather different story...

One of the less obvious by-products of the European wars of the last two hundred years has been the enrichment of the great national (and international) museums of Europe with works of art acquired as the perquisites of power and wealth. And one of the most spectacular of such 'acquisitions' was the vast collection of sculpture and architectural fragments of classical Greece that Lord Elgin shipped back to England from Greece between 1802 and 1811: more than 170 crates and cases of the marbles that in England bear his name reached London, and some 15 different ships were involved in their transportation. When one adds the long list of things that (as we shall see) he thought to 'carry off', but did not because the undertaking was too massive and too costly, or because the opportunity did not quite present itself, the whole episode becomes all the more astonishing.

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