December 13, 2011

Famous disputes over ancient artefact ownership

Posted at 2:06 pm in Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

A few weeks ago, France announced that they would return various Māori heads taken from New Zealand. This article looks at some of the other well-known disputes over artefacts.

Daily Telegraph

Famous disputes over ownership of ancient artefacts
10:30AM BST 09 May 2011

Elgin Marbles

France has agreed to return more than one dozen Maori heads taken from new Zealand more than a century ago. Here are some other ongoing disputes between nations over prized ancient artefacts:

Probably the most famous, and one of the longest running, disputes over ownership of ancient artefacts is the battle between Britain and Greece over the Elgin Marbles.

The collection of classical Greek marble sculptures – also known as the Parthenon Marbles – were originally part of the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis of Athens. But in the late 18th century Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin and the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire at the time, obtained a controversial permission from the Ottoman authorities to remove pieces from the Acropolis.

From 1801 to 1812, Elgin’s agents removed about half of the surviving sculptures of the Parthenon. The Marbles were transported by sea to Britain where they eventually came to be exhibited in the British Museum.

The Greeks want them back, claiming that the marbles should be returned to Athens on moral and artistic grounds. They argue that presenting all the existing Parthenon Marbles in their original historical and cultural environment would permit their “fuller understanding and interpretation” and also that the marbles may have been obtained illegally and hence should be returned to their rightful owner.

The Kohinoor diamond

The Koh-i-noor, which means “Mountain of Light” in Persian, is a 105 carat diamond (in its most recent cut) that was once the largest known diamond in the world.

It originated in the state of Andhra Pradesh in India along with its double, the Darya-i-noor (the “Sea of Light”). It has belonged to various Hindu, Mughal, Persian, Afghan, Sikh and British rulers who fought bitterly over it at various points in history and seized it as a spoil of war time and time again. It was finally seized by the East India Company and became part of the British Crown Jewels when Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India in 1877.

India has claimed the diamond and have said that the Kohinoor was taken away illegally and it should be given back. In a July 2010 interview, David Cameron stated that the gem could not be returned to India as the move would set an unworkable precedent: “If you say yes to one you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty.” The gem remains the property of the British Crown and is kept in HM Tower of London. It is a popular attraction.

Pemulwuy’s head

Pemulwuy was a fierce Aboriginal warrior who led a war of resistance against the British in Australia 200 years ago. The British, showing no mercy, dismissed him as a “pest to the colony” and, in 1802, they shot him, cut off his head, and sent it to Britain to study (nobody had ever seen Australian Aborigines before).

Where the skull is today is a mystery but many believe the warrior’s head is still in England, where the remains of 3000 Aborigines were bottled by the British and sent home for scientific study.

When it first arrived in England, the skull was reportedly kept at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, and later may have been moved to the Natural History Museum. However, the museum has no record of it.

There are fears that the skull could have been destroyed during the German bombing of the college in 1941, while some believe Pemulwuy’s skull was bottled and returned to Australia in 1950, and then lost.

But Sydney’s Aborigines are desperate to get the head back and give it the traditional burial it deserves. Last year they asked Prince William to help locate the head.

Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton, Prince William’s private secretary, has said that the Prince was deeply moved by Pemulwuy’s story and had started a “supremely important search” to locate the skull.

Machu Picchu artefacts

Yale University last year agreed to return thousands of artefacts to Peru that were taken away from the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu nearly a century ago after a bitter long-running dispute that involved Peru filing a lawsuit in the US against the school.

Under the deal more than 4,000 objects, including pottery, textiles and bones, will be sent back to Peru after an inventory of the pieces is completed.

The artefacts were originally taken from Machu Picchu by scholar Hiram Bingham III between 1911 and 1915 and donated to Yale.

In a statement, the university said it “is very pleased with the positive developments in the discussions” with Peru.

Peru has been seeking for years to get the artefacts back. It says they include centuries-old Incan materials, including bronze, gold and other metal objects, mummies, skulls, bones and other human remains, pottery, utensils, ceramics and objects of art.

Peru filed suit against Yale in 2008 arguing that the university violated Peruvian law by exporting the artefacts without getting special permission from the Peruvian government and by refusing to return them.

Yale responded that it returned dozens of boxes of artefacts in 1921 and that Peru knew the university would retain other pieces. Yale described the artefacts as “primarily fragments of ceramic, metal and bone” and said it re-created some objects from fragments.

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1 Comment »

  1. Steve Kay said,

    12.13.11 at 11:47 pm

    Well, there’s no way France is ever going to part with their portion of the Parthenon Marbles, is there?

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