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Art Repatriation: About

Art Repatriation


Repatriating Art and Artifacts

Repatriation is the return of stolen or looted cultural materials to their countries of origin. Although a belief that looting cultural heritage is wrong and stolen objects should be returned to their rightful owner dates to the Roman Republic (see Cicero’s Verrines) it was not until the 1950s, when the stark truths of colonization and war crimes against humanity began to be exposed, that a broad desire for restitution emerged and laws and treaties to facilitate this increased in number. Repatriation claims are based on law but, more importantly, represent a fervent desire to right a wrong—a kind of restorative justice—which also requires an admission of guilt and capitulation. This is what makes repatriations difficult: nations and institutions seldom concede that they were wrong.

The debate over repatriation engages powerful and personal sentiments of morality, nationhood, and identity, and few people can talk about it without raising their voice. Regardless of this passion, however, the issue, ultimately, is a legal one and the international legal frameworks developed in the 20th century are what bring about repatriations. The first, which recognized the damage of warfare to property, was the 1907 Hague Convention, which forbade plundering of any kind during armed conflict, although it did not deal specifically with cultural property. The 1954 Hague Convention, however, in the wake of the widespread destruction of art during the Second World War, sought to expressly protect cultural property during armed conflict. The 1970 UNESCO Convention allowed for stolen objects to be seized if there was proof of ownership, followed by the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects, which calls for the return of illegally excavated and exported cultural property. Without these conventions and treaties, there would be no legal obligation for the return of anything.

The vast majority of repatriation cases derive from colonial or imperial subjugation. Throughout history, across the globe, powerful nations and empires have taken valuable objects, including cultural property, from those they have conquered and colonized. These objects of beauty and esteem number in the many millions and most will likely be lost to their former owners forever. However, the theft of a few especially valuable and/or important objects have proven unforgettable and the subject of frequent repatriation requests. Examples are, for instance: the Koh-i-noor diamond, seized by the British East India company in 1849 and currently part of the British crown jewels; the Benin Bronzes, looted from the capital of Benin (in modern Nigeria) by British soldiers in 1897 and now spread across several museums in Europe and America; the Rosetta Stone, seized by British troops from the French army in Egypt in 1801 and today one of the most popular exhibits in the British Museum in London. The Parthenon Sculptures are another example. Continue reading from Khan Academy

From Our Collection

Link to Africa's Struggle for Its Art by Bénédicte Savoy in the Catalog
Link to Possession: The Curious History of Private Collectors from Antiquity to the Present by Erin Thompson in the Catalog
Link to Stolen, Smuggled, Sold by Nancy Moses in the Catalog
Link to Chasing Aphrodite by Jason Felch in the Catalog
Link to Contested Antiquity edited by Esther Solomon in the Catalog
Link to The Rape of Europa by Lynn Nicholas in the Catalog
Link to The Monuments Men by Robert M Edsel in the Catalog
Link to The China Collectors by Karl Meyer in the Catalog
Link to Stealing the Mystic Lamb by Noah Charney in the Catalog
Link to The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund De Waal in the Catalog

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