What’s Mine is (not) Yours: The Reality of Art Repatriation

by Nick Martin

Two weeks into my senior year of high school, I sat taking notes in my AP art history class. My appreciation for art was just beginning to bubble. We were studying the Egyptians and their strict convention for creating art. For a few odd centuries, the norm was shattered, and the art that resulted is considered some of the best art of the ancient world. This period is known as the Amarna period. My teacher showed several pictures of the works and explained the aesthetic, stylistic, and practical significance of each. I was taking some excellent notes, and therefore I began to notice a theme at the tail end of each object’s explanation. After most slides, my teacher would say something like: “That piece is held in (a foreign) museum, and there’s quite a bit of controversy about whether or not it should be returned.”

My classmates and I discussed the matter after the bell rang. That’s just not fair! We said. Objects should be returned to the country that made them! Thoughts like these stuck in our minds until the next day, when we entered class and asked our teacher why cultural objects often aren’t returned to their places of origin. He explained that art repatriation, the returning of art to its country of origin, is a complex issue. He said globalization has sparked several affairs wherein a country that has long neglected its culture now looks to restore its cultural identity. Naturally, nations want evidence of their past returned. After his brief description, we asked whether he thought pieces of art should be returned. In his usual style of leaving the big questions about art up for us to find out, my teacher dismissed our questions and moved on with the Egyptians.

During that high school art history class, I was disgusted to learn that dozens of masterpieces were never returned to their countries of origin. How unfortunate, I thought, that in a civilized world, decency and respect between two nations couldn’t be attained. Most people, after hearing the surface details of art repatriation cases, will feel similar to the way I did last year. The reality of art repatriation though, is not black and white. There are several factors that determine the morality behind the return of art. It’s a mistake to assume every object should be returned to the country where it was made. But to not return some items would also be wrong. Without these long, often heated debates, repatriation would be ruled by emotions and power. Intense discussions of art repatriation are a good sign. Each case demands its own debate, as both the holder of the art and the one asking for its return seek to find the best solution.

In some instances, countries are asking for the return of their art, but they do not have the necessary means to preserve it. Museum conditions play an important role in whether or not a piece of art is returned. For instance, Neil Silberman notes in “Another Casualty of the Culture Wars,” that Egypt is engaged in a debate with France about the return of The Seated Scribe, a painted wooden sculpture. Kept in the Louvre, the sculpture has received delicate care for years.Items in the Louvre are kept in the best conditions. They receive extreme attention, maintenance, and protection. In recent years, the Egyptian Museum and several archeological sites in Egypt have been the victims of attacks (Silberman). The Bust of Nefertiti, a work from the Amarna period, is considered one of the most significant pieces of the time, and an integral part of Egyptian heritage. It’s been housed in Berlin, Germany for over a century. A politically unstable Egypt wants these masterpieces from the well-kept, safe foreign museums. But among all the disagreement, Boa Rhee Seo asserts in “Arguments Related To the Restitution of Cultural Property,” that most art historians agree on one thing: works of art should never be sent from good to worse preservation techniques (Seo 120). Right now, Egypt isn’t ready to gain possession of these and many other objects. It’s not a refusal to restore cultural heritage; rather, it’s a necessary attempt to keep significant items from a vulnerable location.

Many difficulties can be associated with an issue of repatriation. The Elgin Marbles are portions of the frieze of the Greek Parthenon. Seized by the 7th Earl of Elgin during the reign of the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the 18th century, the marbles were eventually purchased by the British from the Ottomans in 1816 (Athens Info Guide). The British Museum has housed these marbles ever since. It’s been over two centuries since removal of the marbles. During that time, it’s been the British who have maintained them. Couldn’t the marbles therefore be considered a part of British heritage now? Some insist the marbles are just as much a part of Greek heritage as they are British. The Greeks claim them to be an integral part of the acropolis; however, the works were sold. Legally, the British have the upper hand. At the same time, it was the Ottomans, not the Greeks who sold them. However, the Ottomans were in control of the Greeks and could have easily destroyed the marbles and other important works in the area. The Earl’s act could be seen then not as one of thievery, but as a sign of preservation.

While the cases mentioned concerning Egyptian and Greek art are complicated, they do not prove lack of restitution as the best solution to art repatriation. Peru just recently gained possession of thousands of artifacts taken from Machu Picchu in 1911 (Orsen). Held in the Yale museum, these works had been traded for research purposes under the condition set by the Peruvian government that they could request for the items back at any time. Peru felt ready to assume care for these items; after much debate, they were returned in 2010. Yale anthropology professor Richard Burger remarks, “We don’t want to see this as a general precedent, but certainly you can understand that if hundreds of thousands, almost a million people are visiting Machu Picchu a year – if our goal is to share the knowledge that we have and share the objects, this is much more effectively done in Cuzco than it is in New Haven.” The return was important and justified; however, it opened a gate for other cases. As Burger says, this shouldn’t set the status quo for art repatriation. Harvard University holds dozens of murals taken from Dunhuang, China in 1924 by Langdon Warner (University Wire). Residents of Dunhuang seek their return. The issue here is the dangers surrounding the returning process. The murals were peeled off cave walls, and although now they stand well preserved, to return them would inevitably cause deterioration. Even if they were returned, preservation techniques would likely not be on par with that at Harvard. Potential damage to shipped items is a concern for this case and dozens of others.

When possible, works should be returned to their country of origin. In several cases though, the country doesn’t have adequate preservation techniques or proper security to host these works. Other times, the works were exchanged justly, or have been assimilated into the new culture. Some nationalists say these factors don’t matter, notes art historian Seo; the restoration of works outweighs any potential threat, even if they were destroyed (Seo 122). This national pride outweighs global recognition and admiration. I find this mindset narcissistic and an obfuscation of art appreciation. Art doesn’t belong to one culture; if it is art, then it’s universally art. Art is important for everyone and should not be limited nor jeopardized by the restrictions set by one country. As an essential component of humanity, art should be protected, promoted, studied, and appreciated to the best of our abilities.

The best way for an ill-equipped nation to preserve its cultural objects is to sell, trade, or loan their items to a nation with proper means of protection, Seo argues strongly (122). This way, international law can do its job and guarantee both parties act in harmony. While the secured nation has the items displayed, the original country’s culture is promoted, usually to a higher degree than they themselves would achieve. The British Museum has over 4.6 million visitors each year, many of whom marvel at the Elgin Marbles (Dorment). United Nations Educational. Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) sets up guidelines to regulate agreements between nations regarding the return of art and artifacts. The Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation was set up in 1978 by UNESCO for this purpose. While their recommendations are not legally binding, they are typically met with respect. They’ve had several, recent cases where art repatriation has been successful (UNESCO.com)

The rising debate among foreign nations regarding delayed restitution is healthy. This means brash, emotional decisions are avoided. Additionally, given more time, nations seeking return of objects can strengthen their abilities and increase the likelihood of proper repatriation. Certainly, there are cases where art repatriation is due. Yet art repatriation rightfully takes a long time. It’s not a topic that should be unconditionally supported (and luckily, can never be decided) with five minutes of thought by a high school art history student.

Works Cited

“Culture.” Movable Heritage and Museums. UNESCO, 10 May 2010. Web. 8 Nov.

2013.

Dorment, Richard. “The Elgin Marbles Will Never Return to Athens – the British

Museum Is Their Rightful Home.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 30

June 2009. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.

“The Elgin Marbles: A Sad Story About Beauty and Theft.” Athensinfoguide.com.

Athens Info Guide, 2009. Web. 19 Nov. 2013.

“The Morality of Mural Maintenance.” University Wire 2013 oct 22: n. pag. Web. 21

Nov. 2013. <http://136.167.2.214/login?

url=http://search.proquest.com.proxy.bc.edu/docview/1443629065?

accountid=9673>.

Orson, Diane. “Yale Returns Machu Picchu Artifacts To Peru.” NPR. NPR, 15 Dec.

2010. Web. 12 Nov. 2013.

Seo, Boa Rhee. “Arguments Related To the Restitution of Cultural Property.” Beyond

Repatriation: An Analysis of Issues Related To Equitable Restitution of Cultural

Property. Ann Arbor: UMI Microform, 1997. 120-22. Print.

Silberman, Neil. “Another Casualty of the Culture Wars.” Art Newspaper. N.p., Mar.

2011. Web. 8 Nov. 2013.