Elgin was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire between 1799 and 1803. He had a great enthusiasm for antiquities, and was shocked by the indifference of the ruling Turks to the worsening condition of the sculptures. His motive in removing them was to preserve them, but his workers did considerable damage in the process. Even at the time, his actions were controversial. Elgin spent vast amounts of money in having them shipped home to Britain, which he never recouped.
Elgin's time in the Near East had been full of personal misfortune. He had lost his nose during an outbreak of "plague", and this made him even less appealing to his young wife than he had previously been. On his journey home, through France, the earl and some of his companions were taken prisoners of war (war having broken out after they left for home) and were held in detention for several months. Although they were well-treated, Lady Elgin had to travel home without her husband, and began a liaison with one of her escorts. On his return to Britain, Elgin, finding that he could not get the British Museum to pay what he was asking for the marbles, sued his wife's lover for an appropriately high sum. He then remarried (an even younger woman) and went to live on the Continent. The marbles were put on display and were eventually bought for the nation in 1816.
William Robert Bruce
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