Looted art: Is restitution possible or are we beating around the bush?

Arte expoliado (Looted art)

Part of the Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum (CC: Andrew Dunn)


The trend of trying to somehow correct the injustices of the past is gradually taking hold in Western museums. Several have taken the decision to return artistic heritage to countries that were formerly under colonial rule or that, whereby local authorities were unable to exhaustively protect a region, were taken illegally by the “Indiana Jones” of the times, in search of treasures for their personal collections or for the great museums.

Among the most publicized cases by the press in recent months is the return of artistic objects included in the “Benin Bronzes,” a collection of thousands of pieces – not only of bronze, but also of wood, ivory, etc. – that was looted by British troops in the former kingdom of Benin at the end of the 19th century, and which today has been claimed and returned to Nigeria, the country where Benin was historically located. Institutions from Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, etc. have acted similarly, although while in some cases the object in question is returned, in others, with prior agreement, its status is simply changed from “possession” to “loan,” and it remains on exhibit in the museum in question.

One question regarding this form of restitution is whether it is appropriate to “return” an asset to a country that did not exist at the time it was stolen. Can a modern State that has not suffered the dispossession of an asset claim it as its own? And why is this restorative provision gaining momentum now?

“Our moral and ethical compass has changed,” explains Elizabeth Marlowe, director of the Museum Studies program at Colgate University, in New York, to Aceprensa. The museums and countries that are returning their pieces from the Benin Bronzes collection are doing so despite the fact that the ancient kingdom of Benin has nothing to do with the modern political setup of Nigeria. These works of art are returned because their looting occurred in the context of one of the most violent chapters of British imperial history, and today fewer and fewer museums want to own objects with so much blood on them.”

The reality, however, is that a good part of the artistic objects treasured by some civilizations were taken from others during times of war, or obtained through unfair vassalage relationships. It is unquestionable that not all of the various ornaments and artifacts pharaohs were buried with and later looted by local robbers, or discovered and brought to Europe and the U.S. by archaeologists, were originally acquired through peaceful and just means. The Egyptian empire made military incursions in Syria, in Canaan (present-day Palestinian territories and Israel) and in Nubia (part of which is present-day Sudan), and its troops returned with considerable loot.

So, when returning an object “with so much blood on it,” the question should be who actually has legitimate claim to it, and if there is any time limit to this claim. If there is not, isn’t there danger of going down a slippery slope, where any object is claimable, regardless of the centuries that have passed and the geopolitical changes?

The Horses of St. Mark: Italy’s or Turkey’s?

In light of the international mechanisms in place on the matter, how much time has gone by does not weigh as much as the geopolitical factor, and the condition that there is a substantiated claim. The 1970 UNESCO Convention –in an effort to prohibit and prevent the illicit import, export or transfer of cultural property– established that each State considers all cultural creation originating in its territory to be its own heritage (art. 4.a). Likewise, each country must make sure to return the objects that were stolen or illegally imported to their corresponding territory (art. 7).

There is no reference here to the amount of time the objects have been in their new destination. The claimant is only asked to present evidence that, indeed, the object was stolen from its original territory, and that, if at the time of requesting its return it is in the hands of an institution or person who acquired it in good faith, they be financially compensated.

By virtue of these rules, the possibility of processing claims is quite broad. If the focus is placed, for example, on the looting carried out by Napoleon in Italy, we could see many an interesting case. The emperor not only took hundreds and hundreds of paintings, many of which ended up in the Louvre, but also the well-known sculptural group of bronze horses that adorned the Cathedral of San Marco in Venice. When, having defeated the Corsican, France returned a good part of the stolen artistic treasures to the neighboring country, it also returned the horses… But they were not originally Venetian. They are from Roman times and had arrived to Italy from previous looting: that of Constantinople (the current Turkish city of Istanbul) in the 13th century, during the fourth crusade. Could Turkey then claim the horses from Italy?

“In modern legislation, a country is responsible for all the heritage present in its territory”

According to Prof. Marlowe, Turkey could; but it isn’t a matter of hypotheticals. “It is unproductive to wonder if Turkey can claim them, given the fact that the country is not trying to do so. Only a very small part of the historical works of art that have been displaced from their original site over time are claimed by any country. Most of those who work in the cultural heritage industry are aware of history, times, changes, etc., and do not try to turn back time. What is usually behind the small number of claims actually made is their remaining relevance in the cultures in which contemporary people live, for whom the absence of these artifacts is perceived as a painful loss.”

German archaeologist and historian Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, agrees that, when considering the return of an artifact, the criteria of the object’s geographical origin and the way in which it came into other hands take precedence over any other factor, such as the continuity of a national community: “A country can claim cultural property if it comes from its territory and was taken from there illegally,” he told Aceprensa. There is no need to verify historical or cultural continuity. In modern law, a country is responsible for all heritage present within its territory, regardless of the culture, period, or community in which it was created, and must protect it.”

In this sense, he explains that Turkey could theoretically claim artistic assets of Greek culture if they originated in its current territory, which was part of Alexander the Great’s empire in the fourth century BC. “It can be done – he points out – if these objects were illegally taken and exported, regardless of whether the first Turks arrived on the Anatolian peninsula several centuries after” its Hellenization.

Unfair agreements

Regarding Parzinger’s argument – the claim proceeds if the goods in question were illegally removed from the territory – it should be noted that the Pergamon Museum, in Berlin, houses an invaluable structure from Turkey: the altar of Zeus in Pergamon, from the 2nd century BC, discovered by the German archaeologist Carl Humann in 1871 and which, by virtue of an agreement with the Ottoman authorities, was taken to Germany and restored there in 1886.

Some Turkish researchers maintain that, despite the existence of a bilateral pact, it was an act of “smuggling,” since all the agreed conditions had not been met (Humann, they say, carried out illegal excavations since 1869). They also point out that the Ottoman authorities, under pressure from the European powers – needed their support against Russia, against which there would be another war in 1877 – had greatly relaxed the regulations for the export of archaeological objects in 1874. Even so, the “law of thirds” on discoveries at a site – one part for the landowner, another for the State and another for the excavator – was not strictly followed, and the Europeans used to buy out the other two players.

Using these theses, authorities of Pergamon and ministers of the Turkish government have repeatedly demanded the return of the altar – an authority of culture there requested its return in 1998 and again in 2001 – but Germany appeals to the validity of the agreement with the Ottoman Empire. On January 5, the Secretary for Anti-Discrimination Policy of the State of Berlin, Saraya Gomis, ventured to say that the altar could in fact be returned to Turkey – in addition to the famous bust of Nefertiti to Egypt – but shortly after the leftist Berlin senator Lena Kreck stopped her dead in her tracks: there is no intention of return in either case.

Would the term looting, already referenced twice, fit here? According to the RAE (or Royal Spanish Academy, whose mission to ensure the stability of the Spanish language), to verify that we are dealing with this sort of case, something or someone must have been deprived of an asset “through violence or iniquity”, while the Spanish Historical Heritage Law, of 1985, defines looting as “any action or omission that endangers the loss of or destruction of all or some of the worth of the goods” that make up the historical heritage of the country.

There may or may not have been violence. Iniquity, and an intention to deceive, to take advantage of the counterparty’s disadvantage to acquire an object, might or might not have been in the cards, making it difficult to determine whether an agreement on cultural assets guarantees it was indeed fair.

For the British Museum, returning the Parthenon Sculptures to Greece would open the door to a cascade of claims

The Parthenon Sculptures, on display at the British Museum, are a classic case of this ambiguity. They arrived in London at the beginning of the 19th century, when Lord Elgin, British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire – which governed Greece as the occupying power – obtained permission to remove archaeological remains from the Acropolis. In the 1980s, the Greek government, on the understanding that the Turks had no right to dispose of the country’s cultural assets and that it had therefore been a case of looting, began to claim them from London, but from there U.K. authorities point out that a parliamentary committee in 1816 examined the nature of Elgin’s activities and found them to be perfectly licit.

For this reason, the British Museum says it is open to only one possibility: a loan of the sculptures, as long as it is not questioned that they belong to the U.K., something that Greece rejects. There would be no other option: “We shouldn’t be sending them back,” the British Minister of Culture, Michelle Donelan, recently told the BBC. “They belong here in the U.K.” and are “assets of our country that we have cared” for a long time, Donelan maintained. Any other decision, she added, would imply opening “a can of worms,” namely, a cascade of claims against all the museums in the country.

This stance goes beyond the case of the Greek sculptures: the British Museum has an extensive catalog of disputed assets, for each of which it has an explanation so as not to return them. Of the aforementioned Benin Bronzes, for example, it acknowledges that they arrived to the country after an act of colonial looting, but as for returning them, their reasoning is less explicit: The institution “is committed to active engagement with Nigerian institutions concerning the Benin Bronzes, including pursuing and supporting new initiatives developed in collaboration with Nigerian partners and colleagues.” Etcetera, etcetera…

In Germany, on the other hand, there is more willingness: more than 500 Benin Bronzes have already been physically returned or loaned to the Nigerian government. Parzinger, whose Foundation backed their return, said in December that “wherever there was a clear context of injustice, the right step is to follow the same procedure as with the Benin Bronzes with respect to restoring property rights.”

At the moment, however, based on the nature of restitution, the possibility of an injustice being recognized seems more evident with respect to the African objects than to the Pergamon altar. Perhaps because when it comes to cultural looting, the criteria for claiming assets (i.e., specific regulations) needs to be further refined.

Translated from Spanish by Lucia K. Maher 

Contenido exclusivo para suscriptores de Aceprensa

Estás intentando acceder a una funcionalidad premium.

Si ya eres suscriptor conéctate a tu cuenta. Si aún no lo eres, disfruta de esta y otras ventajas suscribiéndote a Aceprensa.

Funcionalidad exclusiva para suscriptores de Aceprensa

Estás intentando acceder a una funcionalidad premium.

Si ya eres suscriptor conéctate a tu cuenta para poder comentar. Si aún no lo eres, disfruta de esta y otras ventajas suscribiéndote a Aceprensa.