It has been estimated that the Nazis stole an estimated 650,000 religious items and works of art from European Jews during World War II. While much of the art been returned, a great deal remains in museums and private collections.
This 1907 portrait ‘Adele Bloch-Bauer I’ by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt was stolen during the Nazi era and recently returned to the rightful heir and subsequently sold for 135 million dollars.
The theft of national treasures is hardly a new phenomenon. If for example, you were to restore all the artworks of dubious provenance in the British Museum and other major institutions to the countries claiming ownership, there would be some big gaps in the collections.
“I’m not asking for all the artifacts of the British Museum to come to Egypt. I’m only asking for the unique cultural objects,” says Zahi Hawass, the secretary-general of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, referring to objects such as the Rosetta Stone.
Thousands of artifacts were carried out of Egypt during the period of colonial rule and afterwards by archaeologists and adventurers. However, the tide is beginning to turn and an Egyptian delegation collected Pharaonic steles thought to have been chipped from the walls of the 3,200-year-old tomb of the cleric Tetaki, from Louvre in France in November 2009.
Unique ancient Egyptian artifacts are scattered around the museums of the world and the increasingly the Egyptian government is putting pressure on museums in europe and the United States.
Currently, the statue of Hemiunu, the architect of the Great Pyramid at Giza is in Germany; the bust of Anchhaf, builder of the Chepren Pyramid is at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; a painted Zodiac from the Dendera temple, is kept in the Louvre palace in France; and the 3,500-year-old bust of Queen Nefertiti, wife of the famous Pharaoh Akhenaten, is on show at the newly re-opened Neues Museum in Berlin, Germany.
Ethiopia claims hundreds of Tabots or religious books looted by British soldiers during the 1868 Expedition to Abyssinia now lodged at the British Museum. The return in February 2002 of one of these, discovered in the storage of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Edinburgh, was a cause of public rejoicing in Addis Ababa.
The Benin Bronzes are a collection of more than 3000 brass plaques from the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin(located in present day Nigeria). They were seized by a British force in the Punitive Expedition of 1897 and given to the British Foreign Office. Around 200 of these were then passed on to the British Museum, while the remainder were divided between a variety of collections. In 1936, Oba Akenzua II began the movement to returned the stolen art now known in modern art discourse as the ‘Benin Bronzes’.
National treasures have continued to be stolen in more recent conflicts, such as the civil war in Afganistan when thousands of objects were stolen from the national collection in Kabul after the fall of the Russian backed regime in the 1980’s. The trend has continued to this day with object disappearing from thousands of sites across the country.
“It’s like a sickness that kills us slowly,” said Omara Khan Masoudi, director of the National Museum of Afghanistan. “Every day, we lose a bit more of our cultural heritage.”
“I think there is absolutely no site in this country which is unaffected,” Philippe Marquis, the director of a team of French government-funded archaeologists operating in Afghanistan, said in a recent interview.
“The illegal trade in antiquities is very significant, and is related to all the illegal activities which are going on in Afghanistan,” he added.
But now Afghanistan is finally getting something back. The British government, with the help of the National Geographic Society and the British Red Cross, has returned 3.4 tons of stolen antiquities that were confiscated over the past six years at London’s Heathrow Airport.
The collection includes more than 1,500 objects spanning thousands of years of Afghan culture: a 3,000-year-old carved stone head from the Iron Age and hand-cast axe heads, cut rock crystal goblets, and delicate animal carvings from the Bactrian era, another thousand years earlier. The oldest artifacts in the collection include a marble figure of an animal showing similarities to artifacts dating to the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, dating as far back as 8,000 years.