November 8, 2003

Debates over the ownership of stolen artwork

Posted at 9:07 am in Similar cases

Italy’s plans to return the Axum Obelisk to Ethiopia re-open the debate about whether items of stolen cultural property should be returned to their countries of origin.


Ownership of Stolen Artwork Debated
Saturday November 8, 2003 8:46 PM
Associated Press Writer

ROME (AP) – An ancient obelisk that Italian Fascist forces hauled out of Ethiopia in the 1930s is being disassembled in central Rome for its journey home – a rare restitution that comes amid international debate over the rightful ownership of looted works.

A major step in the complicated return of the fragile yet weighty Axum Obelisk came Friday, when workers removed a 22-foot-long chunk from the top that weighs about 40 tons.

Seeing part of the 1,700-year-old monument swinging from a crane – and headed home – prompted a group of Ethiopians to burst into cries of delight.

“We consider the obelisk as part of us, of our heritage, of our identity,” said Ethiopian Ambassador to Italy Mengistu Hulluka. “The Romans have monuments everywhere which people can see, of which they are proud – this is the kind of pride we now want to feel.”

Decades after Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini presided over an unveiling ceremony in central Rome, the Italian government decided last year to start procedures to return the 82-foot-tall Ethiopian booty.

The decision comes as Western governments and museums face dilemmas, if not investigations and lawsuits, over artworks they obtained during wars and colonialism.

Some of the most contested artworks were looted by the Nazis from Jewish and other victims. Hitler’s regime took an estimated 150,000 pieces of art from Western Europe during World War II and some 500,000 pieces from Eastern and Central Europe.

At the same time, Germany also has its complaints regarding art the victorious Red Army looted at the end of World War II. Moscow has returned some artworks but balked at returning most of the haul, widely seen in Russia as a rightful compensation for wartime losses.

Britain still holds a considerable number of works obtained during its Empire – perhaps most famously, the Parthenon Marbles acquired in 1811 from Lord Elgin. The ancient works are claimed by Greece, but the British Museum has no plans to return them.

The events leading to Italy’s relinquishing the obelisk started shortly after World War II, when the Ethiopian government asked to have it back several times but was ignored. Later, ravaged by wars and famine, the Horn of Africa nation in no position to press its demand.

In the early 1990s, a popular campaign took off in Ethiopia to have the monument returned. Italy finally agreed in 1998, but a border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea put those plans on hold until now.

The obelisk was originally carved from a single piece of stone but transported to Italy in several pieces and reassembled. It is now being disassembled into three part for the trip home, with experts using jacks and cranes to separate the obelisk at its original cracks.

“One cannot control everything, but we have studied it in detail, and we are confident the obelisk will not be harmed,” said Simone Lattanzi, technical director of the project.

This was not Italy’s first move to return looted art.

In May, Italian officials announced they would return a valuable porcelain collection seized from a Jewish family during Fascism to its legitimate owners. Still, the effort to return stolen items has been slow here – and not without its controversy.

Outspoken art critic Vittorio Sgarbi, a former Culture Ministry undersecretary and longtime critic of plans to return the obelisk, once said the monument had been in Italy so long it had become a “naturalized citizen.”

“To dismantle the obelisk is a crime and it is senseless. These are historical claims that have no meaning at all. It is just a form of ‘Third-Worldism,”’ he complained. “Aside from anything else, I don’t understand why Italy must be the first to return its artistic goods – it’s senseless. With this reasoning, we ought to empty out the Louvre.”

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