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Efforts made to retrieve disputed artefacts

As the issues of repatriation & reunification of cultural property become more widely known, many countries are going to ever greater lengths [1] to secure return of their artefacts.

Star Telegram (Fort Worth, Texas) [2]

Posted on Tue, Mar. 03, 2009
Countries go to greater lengths to get looted treasures back
McClatchy Newspapers

BEIJING — China fumes over the foreign auction of its looted relics. Cambodia sputters over pieces of an ancient temple on sale on eBay. Egypt aches for its stolen treasures that sit in foreign museums, including the indescribably splendid bust of Nefertiti. Italy and Greece plead for the return of countless antiquities.

Countries with rich architectural heritages demand their patrimony back — and they are going to ever-greater lengths to get it.

Peru recently sued Yale University over thousands of Incan artifacts that were taken nearly a century ago from the mountain citadel of Machu Picchu. Italy is challenging foreign museums to prove that items in their showcases weren’t obtained from dealers working with looters, tomb robbers and shady middlemen.

Still others, such as China, appeal to global opinion. Last week, Beijing demanded that Christie’s auction house stop the sale of bronze rat and rabbit heads that were taken from a zodiac water clock at the emperor’s Summer Palace gardens, which were ransacked by British and French troops in 1860.

The auction went ahead, drawing a bid of about $40 million for both pieces. On Monday, Cai Mingchao, an adviser to a Chinese fund for the repatriation of artifacts, identified himself as the mystery bidder but said that he wouldn’t pay, and that he’d made the bid only to disrupt the auction.

Fellow Chinese hailed him, underscoring how highly charged the political controversy is over such lost antiquities, which most Chinese view as a humiliating symbolic reminder of China’s subjugation by foreign powers more than a century ago.

Museums on defensive

Museum curators, auction houses and even city officials are on the defensive.

After all, the world’s most renowned museums are filled with relics obtained in an era when provenance was not an issue. And cities such as New York, London and Paris contain massive granite obelisks from Egypt that symbolize their status as global repositories of antiquities.

Greece has been hammering Britain for decades to return looted statues taken from the Parthenon that draw throngs each year to the British Museum. The sculptures were taken to London by Lord Thomas Elgin, the former British ambassador to Constantinople, more than 200 years ago, and are commonly known as the Elgin Marbles. The British Museum says it has no intention of giving up the priceless pieces.

“We feel secure that our collection here is legally acquired,” said Hannah Boulton, a museum spokeswoman. She noted that the Elgin Marbles had been on display at the museum for nearly 200 years, and had been given to the institution by the British government.

“Anyone can visit,” she said, noting that the museum attempts to offer visitors “the whole world under one roof.”

The British Museum’s legal standing may be solid.

International law hasn’t kept pace with shifting global views over whether antiquities should be returned to their places of origin — often less-developed countries — or kept in big museums with resources for care and display.

Fort Worth angle

Officials at Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum paid $5.7 million at a 2007 auction for a painting they had believed for 41 years was rightfully theirs.

The work is an 1841 oil painting by J.M.W. Turner titled Glaucus and Scylla. Last year, a history professor from Paris, Alain Monteagle, proved to the Kimbell that the work had been confiscated during World War II from two of his ancestors, Anna and John Jaffe, then sold as “Jewish property” by the pro-Nazi Vichy government of France.

In effect, the Kimbell’s prized Turner painting was Nazi loot. The painting was turned over to the Jaffe heirs, who put it up for sale at Christie’s auction house in New York.

The final price was about $6.42 million after auction-house commissions were added. Museum officials were happy to get the painting back at an appropriate price.

China: Give it back

China claims that a million of its artifacts are scattered around the world in 200 museums in 47 countries. It asserts that all the artifacts should be repatriated.

“The Chinese attitude that every Chinese antiquity that is outside China must be returned is quite ambitious,” said David Gill, an expert in classical archaeology at Swansea University in Wales and the author of a blog, Looting Matters.

Lucille Roussin, who has a Ph.D. in art history and archaeology as well as a law degree and teaches at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, said there’s no disputing Chinese officials’ claims that the bronze rat and rabbit heads auctioned by Christie’s last week in Paris disappeared in the ransacking of the emperor’s Garden of Perfect Brightness during the Second Opium War.

“Did they have a legal claim? No. Did they have a moral claim? Yes,” Roussin said. The items in question “were certainly looted. But they were looted at a time when there was no international law on this kind of looted object.”

Those arguments infuriate average Chinese. Even Hollywood film star Jackie Chan weighed in: “This behavior is shameful.  . . . It was looting yesterday. It is still looting today.”

Antiquities in Iraq

Last month, the Iraq Museum of Antiquities opened its doors for the first time since the world watched in shock as much of the collection vanished in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion.

Iraqi officials believe that most of the valuable artifacts were cleared out by expert thieves who used the chaos as cover.

“The real damage to the museum . . . was done by professionals,” said Abdul Zahra al Talqani, a spokesman for the Ministry of Tourism, which pushed for the reopening of the museum.

He said that while more than 9,400 artifacts are still missing, the museum had gotten back 6,000.

Some of Iraq’s most precious heritage remains abroad, looted in a different era, most notably Babylon’s Ishtar Gate, which sits in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum.

“We have important pieces in London, Paris, Berlin,” Talqani said. “We ask for them to be returned but do not expect them ever to come home.”