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  • Ginevra Tortora

Restitution of Ancient Artefacts

by Ginevra Tortora


Photograph of the Benin Bronzes.


Following growing international pressure, in the last few months European countries such as Germany and the United Kingdom agreed to the restitution of thousands of artworks, known as the Benin bronzes, stolen from Nigeria during the colonisation of Africa.


While the repatriation of artefacts obtained under colonial rule has been long advocated for by the international community, there is a lot of legal uncertainty surrounding the restitution of the looted objects.


Over the years, European museums have acknowledged their moral responsibilities and taken actions towards the restitutions of pieces in their possess, reflecting a Western change of attitude towards the former colonies. In 2017 French President Emmanuel Macron declared that – ‘African heritage can no longer be the prisoner of European museums […] In the next five years, I want the conditions to be created for the temporary or permanent restitution of African patrimony to Africa’


These recent tendencies have been called ‘game changers’ and the ‘start of a new era’ but are they really? Or is the West throwing a quasi-condescending bone at the ex-colonies for the world to see?


As it seems that Western countries are taking historic and moral responsibility for the crimes committed during their colonial past, the restitution of cultural objects ‘is their clear attempt to reconcile with the descendants of the people who were robbed of their treasures at that time’ – in the words of German cultural minister Monika Gruettes. As such, demands for the restitution of these cultural objects have increasingly been heard by former colonial powers.


Dr Zahi Hawass – archaeologist and former Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs of Egypt – claimed that European museums can certainly keep artefacts that were legitimately sold to them but those that were taken illegally as a result of imperialist practices must be returned.


We cannot leave imperialism behind if the results of it are still shown off in museums. – he said.


After all, if it is established that these countries are not the lawful owners of the pieces that they have stolen, then why wouldn’t it be lawful to give them back?


However, while the international community widely recognised the morality of repatriation in the UNESCO Regulations – 1970, which requires the artefacts to be given back to the country of origin and in the UNIDROIT Convention on the International Return of Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects, the principles and recommendations of these conventions have not been implemented uniformly by states, leading to legal uncertainties and delays.


From a practical point of view, it has been challenging for States to define their attachment to these antiquities that are not only linked to the peoples who created them, but are also often telling of the most profound roots of the entire human experience. Besides, where a legislation exists, often these rules reflect a State’s subjective notions of what is worth of protection and what isn’t.


In addition to that, international instruments still haven’t defined unlawful conducts. As an example, it is hard to determine under international cultural property law whether nations (with adequate means to preserve them) should be able to claim back these artefacts that were part of their cultural heritage. Arguments for restitution are based on the presumption that there has been a ‘theft’. But, in practice, doubts exist on what really constitutes a ‘theft’, the nature and status of these objects and how they should be returned.


Aside from legal considerations, the relations between Western countries and their former colonies, are often defined by politics rather than morality.



Photograph of the British Museum.


As such, the British Museum’s belief that ‘it is best to put the object in an international context where cultures can be compared and contrasted across time and place’, feeds into notorious paternalistic colonial views.


The 1920 League of Nations’ British Mandate was created for the British Empire to look after the former German and Ottoman colonies as they were not ‘yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world”. Colonialism was then justified with civilisation ideas. The tutelage of those people then becomes now the tutelage of the origins of their civilisation.


On the other side of the coin, with the formation of new States in the Middle East because of the disaggregation of the Ottoman Empire, the artefacts were often exploited by these new nations for purposes of self-determination and national identity rather than a genuine interest in safeguarding their cultural heritage (e.g., Saddam Hussein strongly called for the repatriation of antiquities previously sold to European museums when he became president of Iraq). The treasures were reduced to strategic and political interests in the history of the Arab world, or better yet, tools of the ongoing conflict between the East and the West.


Luca De Curtis, who holds a PhD from the Department of Ancient Sciences at Università di Roma La Sapienza, declared that some historians found it almost impossible to get a hold on high-resolution photos for research purposes of papyri that were returned to the Cairo Museum in Egypt. As these objects belong to the common heritage of humankind, efforts should be concentrated on their best preservation to allow people to get acquainted with remote realities.


The focus should be on how best to share these objects with the outside world wherever they may be. – Claimed James Cuno, American Art historian and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust since 2011.


Nonetheless, the generic assumption that these cultural objects would be better conserved far from their native homes is just flawed.



Photograph of the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum.


Notably, the British irreparable damage of the Elgin Marbles during preservation in 1999 was a scandal. The matter was then dismissed by the British Museum as a ‘gross exaggeration’. But we can’t have double standards when history of humanity is at stake.


Perhaps the ongoing efforts of Western countries to ‘export democracy and civilisation’ to people that allegedly can’t do it themselves, should rather focus on transmitting their conservation of antiquities knowledge and contribute to the funding and creation of accessible structures where they can actually be admired by the whole world. – As Dr. De Curtis added.


Positive efforts for the repatriation of these objects still seem part of a contemporary, apologetic tendency rather than an actual admission of responsibility for the atrocities committed in the past and a real willingness to change things. Mistakes can be amended but it takes more than that.


While restitution is central in terms of recognition of past wrongs and reconstruction of the identities of these people, at present, there isn’t a ‘right to restitution’ in international law and such practice is subject to an, often lengthy, case by case evaluation. Possibly, arbitration commissions operating on individual evaluations could be enhanced to resolve claims of restitution so as to shorten the means of the law.


Also, as stolen pieces still inhabit our museums, there should be more historical transparency about the brutalities of colonialism and the reasons for the displacement of ancient artefacts.


Meanwhile, Nigeria plans to build a brand new museum to store the Benin Bronzes returned by European nations. The return of the Bronzes as well as other famous ancient artefacts to former colonies is undoubtedly a good start but I don’t see the Parthenon’s marbles or the Rosetta Stone going back home any time soon…

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