The problem of where looted masterpieces belong

Museums have been facing a reckoning in recent years for the potentially criminal tactics many used to obtain valuables

The Elgin Marbles, also known as the Parthenon marbles, at the British Museum in London, on November 28, 2023. EPA
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Two bits of recent news highlighted a major global shift in this anti-colonialist era, as well as the considerable distance still left to go. Italy last month agreed to repatriate 10 ancient terracotta figures recently smuggled out of Turkey, showing how western states and institutions are increasingly willing to return goods acquired through questionable means.

A couple of weeks later, however, the British Museum mounted the fashion show of a British-Turkish designer in front of the Elgin Marbles, a collection of ancient marble statues and bas-reliefs Athens wants the UK to return to their original home, the Parthenon. In response to the fashion event, Greek Culture Minister Lina Mendoni said the UK showed “zero respect for the masterpieces” – unwittingly touching on the line western institutions appear unwilling to cross.

In a bit of reparative justice for western imperialism, museums have been facing a reckoning in recent years for the potentially criminal tactics many used to obtain valuables. “The Indiana Jones era is over,” is how The New York Times put it, citing dozens of repatriations by US institutions. Turkey, one of the cradles of human civilisation, has been a key beneficiary of this shift, welcoming the return of more than 3,000 artefacts last year.

Sending antiquities home, even the masterpieces, is the right thing to do

Several Turkish requests are still pending, the two most pressing being the Pergamon Altar and the bronze head of Emperor Septimius Severus. The latter has been at a Copenhagen museum for more than 50 years after being looted, according to Turkey, during a 1960s excavation. Ankara says it is the head of the seven-foot-tall headless bust it received from the Met last year, while Denmark says it needs to compare the breakage lines to be sure.

The Pergamon Altar, built on an acropolis terrace in the Kingdom of Pergamon, which stretched across Turkey’s present-day Izmir province from 300 to 30BC, is significantly larger – and a much bigger deal. Some 36 meters by 33 meters, the reconstructed altar takes up an entire hall of Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, a wildly popular art institution in the centre of the German capital that, yes, is named after the altar.

Turkey is far from alone. We might start with the Elgin Marbles, which the UK acquired while Greece was under Ottoman rule. Athens argues, quite reasonably, that the governing Ottomans lacked the authority to dispense with their heritage.

Egyptian archaeologists recently launched a petition urging the UK to return the Rosetta Stone, an ancient slab of inscriptions that a Frenchman used to decipher hieroglyphics two centuries ago, expanding our understanding of ancient Egypt.

Egyptologist Monica Hanna is leading a campaign urging Egypt to request the repatriation of a 3,000-year-old bust of Queen Nefertiti, pointing out that Adolf Hitler vetoed the bust’s planned return in the 1930s. The bust remains on display at Berlin’s Egyptian Museum, which is home to thousands of Egyptian antiquities.

Ghana recently won the return of its crown jewels, said to be plundered by British explorers some 150 years ago. But several African observers are upset that the return is only temporary, a three-year loan.

The world’s largest repatriation case concerns the so-called Benin Bronzes, hundreds of bronze sculptures and figures from what is today southern Nigeria. Nigerian officials have been calling for their return for more than a decade, and in the past few years have persuaded Germany, the UK and other countries to repatriate more than a thousand artefacts.

This represents a sea-change from the 19th and most of the 20th century, when western museums aggressively pursued artefacts with little concern for their ownership histories. The shift began with the 1970 passage of a Unesco convention that redefined acceptable behaviours on acquisition and best practices for curbing import of stolen items.

Change did not happen overnight, and even in the 2000s many curators continued to turn a blind eye to concerns about provenance. The tipping point may have been a Kim Kardashian dress.

In 2017, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art paid nearly $4 million for the gold-plated coffin of the ancient Egyptian priest Nedjemankh. The next year, the reality TV star turned up at the Met Gala in a gold dress and posed next to the coffin for photos, which went around the world and sparked an investigation that found the export licence had been forged and the coffin smuggled across the Middle East and Europe.

Two years after buying it, the Met returned the coffin, setting off a cascade of repatriations. The line now appears to be the charismatic masterpieces – tentpole works that all but define a museum. In fact, British museums are constrained by a law that requires them to gain authorisation before giving away any of their principal holdings. This would include the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles and, in Germany, the Pergamon Altar.

Take away the altar, museum supporters fear, and it’s not clear what’s left. Similarly, if Berlin’s Egyptian Museum agreed to return Nefertiti’s bust, how could it then deny the return of countless other Egyptian artefacts? Soon the museum might have little reason to exist.

Some who oppose repatriation today point to exhibitions like the Met’s crowd-pleasing Temple of Dendur, donated by Egypt in the 1960s, to argue that western experts often have superior knowledge and a better understanding of how to care for and display them.

This is not entirely accurate, as the British Museum is caught in an epic scandal after a curator there apparently sold hundreds of museum objects on the black market. More importantly, this view is condescending, even racist, like me telling a Turkish friend that I know their Ottoman grandfather better than they do because I read a few books.

Thankfully, repatriation may be having a moment. On the weekend, the Berlin International Film Festival gave its grand prize to “Dahomey,” a documentary about 26 looted artworks France returned to Benin a few years ago. Filmmaker Mati Diop’s innovation is that the artefacts, which include two centuries-old statues of kings, are given voice, becoming characters who narrate their return home.

This twist helps illuminate the injustice. If all the western-held artefacts and antiquities were mysteriously brought to life, our museums would suddenly feel not like zoos, as depicted in the Night at the Museum movies, but like prisons, keeping all their foreign guests under lock and key rather than free to roam on their own recognisance.

Brilliant art and artefacts drive economic activity and cultural growth, as these museums and curators well know. We in the West have benefited greatly from these objects, but we have held on to them for long enough. Prized treasures will be lost, attendance might fall, and some museums may even be forced to close, but sending antiquities back home, even the masterpieces, is the right thing to do. After all, they were never ours to begin with.

Published: February 27, 2024, 7:00 AM