Repatriation:  New Life in an Old Debate


Wilbur Norman




The recent turmoil in Egypt has added fuel to the repatriation debate, not least because Zahi Hawass, the recently resigned Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs, has been one of the most flamboyant voices on the issue since early 1983 when Melina Mercuri did a short film pressing for the return of the Elgin Marbles.  Opinions on repatriation have been forwarded from many sides and predictably run the gamut from ‘let the locals decide’ to cautious, toe-in-the-water statements from the dealer fraternity.  The scholarly set, for the most part, have decried the theft and vandalism in Egypt and left the war of words to others.

From the ‘let the locals decide’ corner I read this blog:


“It is sad if they [Egyptian antiquities] are restolen (sic), destroyed or resold to private collectors ... as many were during the golden age of archaeology in Egypt. But it is not the (sic) our responsibility to tell them how to preserve their history. They've been raiding their own tombs since the age of the Pharaohs. It is their own history that has been lost. We have enough of our own to discover and preserve. 



From the antiquities trade (International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art, Cologne, Germany) we can read the following mild sentiment:  “the incidents during the Egyptian revolution could be taken as a basis for a change of discussion.”


A natural consequence of the first voice would seem to be, for example, that the destruction of the Bamiyan buddhas in Afghanistan, while unfortunate, is, or was, really none of our business.  In this light people have the right to determine what happens to cultural patrimony within their sphere of power (well, the powerful people do, anyway.)  This view, as odd as it may sound to culture mavens, finds some expression in UNESCO’s simple equation that cultural property = national patrimony.  That is, the current government of a country has the decision-making authority over all cultural items found within its borders whether or not the existing, modern culture and peoples have any connection to the cultural material in question.  This position is hardly surprising considering that UNESCO is a part of the United Nations, an organization of nation-states that seek to maximize their own interests.  This is why it is perfectly legal for Libya’s Col. Quaddafi to sell antiquities in London from the great Roman ruins at Leptis Magna (yes, he has) and why it would be illegal for me, or an ordinary Libyan for that matter, to spirit a few things out and consign them to the sales rooms. 


Hawass, responding to current musings on the early 2011 Egyptian upheavals and his government’s failures to successfully secure, in a timely manner, its museums and storehouses offered this sound bite:


"Arguments against repatriation because of the current situation in Egypt are completely wrong…. If the police left the streets of New York City, London, or Tokyo, criminals of those cities would smash the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the British Museum, or any other museum in those cities." 


As there are always criminal elements waiting for an opportunity, Hawass may be correct but a natural or industrial catastrophe is a far different animal than political instability, even if the after-effects of both may have similarities.  Deep, game-changing, political instability is not part and parcel of the so-called western democracies though safety of artifacts is always, like freedom, a relative thing.


As it happens, we have a tragic, instructive example coming immediately on the heels of Hawass’ comment.  After the March 2011 tsunami in Japan people stood in orderly lines at supermarkets, among other good-citizen behaviors, and bought only what they needed so as to leave supplies for others.  No riotous behavior ensued and no banks were robbed.  Oh, and no museums were looted (even as known members of the organized crime syndicates, the Yakuza, assisted in relief efforts).


Can we use the ‘home’ country’s ability to care for returned artifacts in the course of ordinary stewardship as a factor in repatriation debates?  Perhaps this is a key question in light of the oft-heard, “they can’t take care of what they have!”  Some of the dreariest, needy museums I have visited are in western, democratic countries.  The state of many displays in Italy’s premier museums is but one example.  And as for stewardship, one only need look to Italy’s Culture Minister, Sandro Biondi, for a telling comment.  Writing on the recent collapses of famous buildings in Pompeii (15 have crumbled since 2008) he penned, “The [recent] collapse did not involve anything of artistic, archeological, or historical worth.”  This, at a site visited by more than 2.5 million tourists each year, each of whom pays Euro 11 for a visit!  I must add, as a personal note, that not once in a month-long visit to Italy last year (where many signs in Pompeii tout the importance of these fragile structures) did I see in any museum any Italian contributors’ names on the label under a work of art naming the benefactor who paid for a work’s restoration.  Surely they must exist, but all the names I read appeared non-Italian.  (I concede that some names could have been Tyrolian.)







We Americans, of course, cannot lay any claim to taking care of our non-displayed cultural heritage any better than some so-called Third World countries.  In his December 2009 report, Museum Collections: Accountability and Preservation, the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) wrote,


”Our audit found that DOI is failing to fulfill its stewardship responsibilities over museum collections.  Specifically, we found a widespread failure to properly accession, catalog, or inventory museum collections.  At DOI facilities [holding an estimated 146 million items], elements of the Nation’s heritage are being neglected and forgotten in thousands of boxes that contain millions of objects neither identified nor accounted for.  Additionally, DOI has little idea of what museum collections non-DOI facilities hold.”


Would you want to give your cherished items to an institution or country with this report card?


But, having written this, there are compelling arguments, indeed, for the return of artifacts, especially those recently taken from their land of origin.  (Iraq comes readily to mind.)  Just as raw materials moved from “less-developed” economies to the more developed ones, so too, has art.  I find the rebuke of culture writer Kwame Opoku a thought-provoking one:


“A person who steals my Mercedes-Benz may be a better driver than myself and may even look after the vehicle better than I can ever dream of doing.  But would his skill in driving or his excellent maintenance affect the property relations involved?” – Dr. Kwame Opoku, A History of the World with 100 Looted Objects of Others: Global Intoxication?


At the same time I find Fayza Haikal’s argument a more emotional and less compelling one:


            “I believe that people who use the revolution [in Eqypt] as an argument for not returning artifacts do not even deserve to be taken into consideration. These people are taking advantage of a dramatic situation to justify their point of view, a fact that is unethical and better ignored”.  Egypt’s Museums XVV: ‘Our open-air museum’.  A Q & A with Fayza Haikal, Egyptology professor. -http://www.


Yet, despite Opoku’s logic, I do find myself torn on the many variations in repatriation as the issues very often do not lend themselves to a black or white, right or wrong summation.  As in life, there is nuance; there are shades of grey.  On one hand I think of Dr. Opoku’s comparison and, on the other, posit the question, why hand non-transparent governments the plum of repatriation when these governments are, by their authoritarian and totalitarian nature, unstable?  The bubbling ferment of the dispossessed is always just under the surface and the safety of artifacts, more likely than not, will eventually come into question as such governments rarely go peacefully.  Some would say, however, that the internal workings of a country are no one else’s business.


Western institutions obviously are not blameless in the age-old grasp for the rare and beautiful, just simply the current target.  And well might they be in a number of cases.  The hubris of the Getty in behaving much like any arrogant, rich, western country comes to mind.  In their relations with Italy over the famous and iconic cult statue of a goddess usually identified, probably mistakenly, as Aphrodite, their modus operandi was deny, deny, deny and stick their heads in the sand.  The long-drawn-out end result is that they gave up a curator as the sacrificial lamb, sullied their reputation and lost 40 artifacts.  Much of their distress would have been avoided if they had done the right and honorable thing in the first place: given up those pieces with a recent problem provenance.


It is also obvious that formal repatriation is not the only possible method of art restitution.  We need only look to the Chinese to see individuals rapidly buying back their cultural patrimony.  One day, presumably, these items will enrich Chinese museums as bequests of their current owners.   (Although China also is said to have created research teams in the last few years as a possible prelude to repatriation claims.  These teams have been pouring over the catalogued holdings of western museums.  They appear to be searching for, in particular, items from the 1860 sacking of the Old Summer Palace during the Second Opium War – carried out under the orders, by the by, of the 8th Earl of Elgin, son of Lord Elgin of Parthenon marbles fame.)


If Nigeria wants re-possession of Benin art that was taken in the nefarious British 1897 ‘Punitive Expedition’ (for a description of the sacking of Benin see this short video:, could they not continue to buy them back with their oil revenues?  Or, use some of the money that goes into the pockets of the corrupt?  So what that the bronzes were taken by force?  However terrible and bone-headed war may be, it is one of the constants in human interaction.  For most of human history the gathering up of the defeated’s most precious objects was a staple activity for the victor.  How far back in time do we go with transferring cultural material back to its ‘rightful’ owner?  The restitution of Nazi-looted material from WWII has sharpened this dialogue, but may not tell us much except that the attempt to make whole (in an art sense) those affected, benefits from the fact that they are (or were) Europeans and, hence, are ‘more like us.’  The return of Nazi loot is also about returning material to individuals whereas most other current repatriation dialogues involve countries.


Where do we draw a statute of limitations on artifact restitution and do we start the clock from the time taken or from when their return is sought?  Should the famous Horses of St. Marks in Venice be returned to the Hippodrome of Constantinople from whence they were looted in the Fourth Crusade of 1204 AD?  Or, should they be re-installed on the island of Chios, where, under Theodosios II, they are mentioned in the 8th or early 9th century?  Or, might they be given to Greece since there is a belief and possibility that the 4th century B.C. sculptor Lysippos created them?  Perhaps we ought to suspend judgment until science decides if the horses are actually the product of a Roman hand, as some metallurgists believe.  As if this is not confusing enough, the horses did once leave Venice, residing in Paris as Napoleonic spoils of war before they were given back to Venice in 1815!


Is Spain really entitled to the $500 million cargo of coins (as a Tampa, Florida court has ruled) that were salvaged in 2007 by Odyssey Marine Exploration from what is thought to be the wreck of the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes?  The frigate was deep-sixed by the British in 1804.  Peru and descendants of Spanish colonial figures who had private material aboard have also made claims of ownership.   Spain argues the treasure comes from a flagged naval vessel and even though no attempts were ever made to salvage it in international waters, they say the coins remain Spain’s.   But what of the rights of Peru?  What of the rights of the descendants of the thousands of slaves who worked the mines from whence came the silver to make the estimated one million coins?   What of the rights of the descendants of the indigenous peoples whose artifacts were melted down to mint the coins?


Perhaps we should take repatriation claims to their logical, silly maximum?  One of the hallmarks of any given culture or country is its languages.  Is there anything that types a people/culture more than its language?   Why not rule that languages can be spoken only in their country of origin, by the people born there?  Why not stipulate that coins and currency can only be used in their home country and repatriate all the world’s physical money right away?


Why not, indeed!  For me the answer is that, just as in matters of art, the necessary exchange of the world’s ideas and commerce is made possible by the ability to communicate outside of one’s native language anywhere in the world.  Likewise, the necessary buying and selling of commodities is supported by the ability to exchange monetary instruments any and everywhere.   And just as these exchanges often take place between partners unequal in power, knowledge and willingness to parley –- in fact often between unwilling partners, transactions still take place.  While I hesitate to say it is the way of nature, it is the way of men.  Are we to stipulate that Spain ought to pay enormous and long-term reparations to countries in Central and South America because they looted the physical and human wealth of those lands?  Ought Africa be reimbursed for the generations of misery sustained during and after the slave trade?  How would we even approach such tasks?


In the same way, it seems to me to be a Pandora’s box without resolution to empty the world’s western museums of their long-held art to fulfill a ‘restitution’ demand from the countries that say this material is rightly theirs.  I count myself among those who believe it better to begin dialogues for the long-term loan of cultural material in both directions.


A final note:  Art loans seem to be going in the opposite direction.  Since I wrote this in March, the Czech Republic has withdrawn many loaned artworks around the world fearing their legal seizure.  This stems from a successful (so far) suit brought against the Czech government by an individual and his company.  He has filed seizure petitions in Austria and France, among other countries, to take possession of Czech-owned art to pay for the judgment.  Austria has actually taken 3 artworks into custody.  Along similar lines, Russia has banned loans to U.S. museums in retaliation for a U.S. judge's ruling it must return some 37,000 books, manuscripts and pages of rabbinic writings (known as the Schneerson Collection) to the Jewish group Chabad.  The group was founded in 18th century Russia and the materials had been seized during the Russian Revolution and World War II.


Lastly, Zahi Hawass, who always seems to land on his feet, has a new appointment from Egypt’s Prime Minister.  He is now the Minister for Antiquities, surely good news for Eqypt if bad news for some of the worlds museums.


See Wilbur’s Last Word column on page 41 for more about the Czech situation. 




Reprinted From:



Summer 2011, page 14-17