Looted Artworks Returned

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.

The Rosetta Stone: One of the unique objects demanded for return by the Egyptian government

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.

One of the Benin Bronzes

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.

Kabul Museum in 1993

“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.

Some of the objects returned to Afghanistan

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.


About stevehollier

Steve Hollier is the editor of AZ Magazine, an English language lifestyle magazine based in Baku, Azerbaijan. He began his career working for a firm of stockbrokers in the City of London then went on to attend the University of Essex where he was awarded an MA in Sociology in 1984. After a career in arts and cultural development work, he became a freelance arts consultant, writer and photographer.
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4 Responses to Looted Artworks Returned

  1. Julia Hawkes-Moore says:

    My chum the Curator of a small but fine museum showed me all the ethnographic artefacts they keep stored in boxes. “As a Person,” he said, “I approve of returning these tattoed Maori Skulls etc to their descendants. But as a Curator, I am morally obliged to not do so, if only to preserve the collection intact for future decisions.”

    Tricky conundrum. To be discussed on QI.com Forums.

    • Julia Hawkes-Moore says:

      Two responses so far: they must have read the link to your blog;
      Ion: “The truly moral thing to do, I think, would be to return the skulls – as much as this means they will be buried and thus lost.
      It is a difficult decision to make – in both cases.”

      Posit: “Boy George returned a lost icon to a church in cyprus – after it was spotted in a video he did.
      Not that he’s a leading light in morality.
      I can’t see any excuse for keeping them.
      The museum is a living thing – keep some pictures or make some models, but tell a deeper story of life by documenting the skulls’ return.”

      Quite Interesting.

  2. stevehollier says:

    I take the point but the same argument has been made for years with regard to cultural artifacts such as the Elgin marbles purchased by Lord Elgin from the Turkish, Ottoman rulers of Greece. From 1801 to 1812 Elgin’s agents removed about half of the surviving sculptures of the Parthenon, as well as architectural members and sculpture from the Propylaea and Erechtheum.

    According a the Wikipedia article on the sunject the main arguments for the museum retaining them are:

    1. The maintenance of a single worldwide-oriented cultural collection, all viewable in one location, thereby serving as a world heritage centre. The British Museum is a creative and living achievement of the Enlightenment, while the Parthenon, on the other hand, is a ruin that can never now be restored.

    2. The assertion that fulfilling all restitution claims would empty most of the world’s great museums – this has also caused concerns among other European and American museums, with one potential target being the famous bust of Nefertiti in Berlin’s Altes Museum; in addition, portions of Parthenon marbles are kept by many other European museums, so the Greeks would then establish a precedent to claim these other artworks.

    3. Some scholars argue that the marbles were saved from what would have been severe damage from pollution and other factors, which could have perhaps destroyed the marblesm if they had been located in Athens the past few hundred years;
    experts agree that Greece could mount no court case because Elgin was granted permission by what was then Greece’s ruling government and a legal principle of limitation would apply, i.e. the ability to pursue claims expires after a period of time prescribed by law.

    4. More than half the original marbles are lost and therefore the return of the Elgin Marbles could never complete the collection in Greece. In addition, many of the marbles are too fragile to travel from London to Athens.

    5. Display in the British museum puts the sculptures in a European artistic context, alongside the work of art which both influenced and was influenced by Greek sculpture. This allows parallels to be drawn with the art of other cultures.

    6. The notion that the Parthenon sculptures are an item of global rather than solely Greek significance strengthens the argument that they should remain in a museum which is both free to visit, and located in Europe’s most visited and largest city. The government of Greece intends to charge visitors of the New Acropolis Museum, where they can view the marbles (as of 2010 the price is €5),

    7. A legal position that the museum is banned by charter from returning any part of its collection.

    On the other hand, arguments in favour of their return include:

    1.The main stated aim of the Greek campaign is to reunite the Parthenon sculptures around the world in order to restore “organic elements” which “at present remain without cohesion, homogeneity and historicity of the monument to which they belong” and allow visitors to better appreciate them as a whole.

    2. Presenting all the extant Parthenon Marbles in their original historical and cultural environment would permit their “fuller understanding and interpretation”.

    3. Precedents have been set with the return of fragments of the monument by Sweden, the University of Heidelberg, Germany, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.and the Vatican.

    4. That the marbles may have been obtained illegally and hence should be returned to their rightful owner.

    5. Returning the Elgin Marbles would not set a precedent for other restitution claims because of the distinctively “universal value” of the Parthenon.

    6. Safekeeping of the marbles would be ensured at the New Acropolis Museum, situated to the south of the Acropolis hill. It was built to hold the Parthenon sculpture in natural sunlight that characterises the Athenian climate, arranged in the same way as they would have been on the Parthenon. The museum’s facilities have been equipped with state-of-the-art technology for the protection and preservation of exhibits.

    For me that final point is the clincher. It was always said that if the marbles were replaced on the Parthenon they would not fit and the pollution in Athens is so bad, they would be damaged by exposure to the air. Given that the Greek authorities have no intention of replacing them on the building and there is a 21st century museum already in place to receive them, I think they [and other key cultural artifact] should be returned to their place of origin. That is so long as their safety and security can be guaranteed.

  3. Julia Hawkes-Moore says:

    My own thoughts are to leave everything exactly where it is, being cared for by competent people. Then create ‘Virtual Museums’ in SecondLife.com, in which a user can visit, say, the Parthenon, from the comfort of their own computer, and walk around it, experiencing the intersecting volumes, light and shade, historical perfection, then the moment of the explosion, and the current decayed state. Clicking on any section would offer information in every language about the artefact.

    This would cut out all Air travel and reduce queues. Virtual Tourism. I am proposing this to the National Trust. I have a team ready to recreate anything in SL, and once we get paid for it, we can begin.

    The Maori skulls disturb me, though. Those, I do think, should be returned to their descendants for their own museums and sacred spaces. But human bone carries the same resonance as other cultural artefacts (Polynesian feather capes, Innuit eelskin weather proof macs etc, cult images.) so I am in a dilemma about those. Virtual Museums would help. The Maori chief could become a ‘real person’ in exact anatomical detail, and speak his recorded words aloud, and into a translator. Kids could try on the virtual capes, and experience the weather they were designed for, without leaving the classroom.

    Anyway, that is my vision of a practical interactive 4D solution for our planet. It’s not perfect, but it does have some validity.


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