December 24, 2007

Italy’s recovered artefacts go on display

Posted at 2:03 pm in Similar cases

The New York Times has a published a gallery on their website of photos of some of the artefacts returned to Italy by US museums & galleries. In a different publication, Kwame Opoku writes about whether other countries can learn lessons from this event.

The New York Times gallery of images can be seen here.


Written by Dr. Kwame Opoku
Sunday, 23 December 2007


The Italian authorities have opened a spectacular exhibition in the Presidential Palace, the Quirinal, in Rome, running from 21 December until 2 March, 2008, with free admission except on Sundays. The exhibition, entitled “Nostoi: Returned Masterpieces” (“Nostoi: Capolavori Ritrovati”) displays 68 cultural artefacts which had been stolen/looted from Italy and were kept in the United States.

The title is an allusion to a lost epic poem recounting the return of heroes from the Trojan War. The exhibition placards indicate also the sources of these returned items and thus underline the efforts made by Italy to recover these items: “Marble statue of Vibia Sabina, second century A.D. formerly Museum of Fine Arts, Boston”.

The masterpieces of painting, sculpture and art were returned by American museums with which the Italians have been in negotiations over decades-The Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and Princeton University’s Art Museum. These are very precious treasures of Etruscan, Greek and Roman civilizations which had been the pride of the American museums but with Italy’s strong tactic of legal pressure, a senior curator of the Getty Museum and her alleged accomplices being on trial and refusal to lend cultural objects to museums which retain or buy stolen objects, offers of co-operation by way of long-term loans, forced the Americans to give in. The museums realized that in the end all have much to gain by returning stolen items and refusing to purchase objects of dubious provenance.

Many of the items had been bought by the museums in good faith after they had been illegally transported from Italy. But Italy put on trial a former curator of the Getty museum and a well-know art dealer for knowingly acquiring several looted artefacts.

At a press briefing in connection with the exhibition, the Italian Minister for Culture, Francesco Rutelli said: “The odyssey of these objects, which started with their brutal removal from the bowels of the earth, didn’t end on the shelf of some American museum… With nostalgia, they have returned. These beautiful pieces have reconquered their souls”. The minister also informed the press that Italy, had on its own accord returned hundreds of objects to their countries of origin, especially to Pakistan and Iran. Italy was proud of its role in bringing about radical changes in the trade in antiquities.

The Italian Minister may be right when he expresses the view that we are on the verge of an epochal change. The only question is whether other countries, such as France, Britain and Germany will follow this example. Will the Louvre, Musée du Quai Branly and Musée Guimet make a gesture in this direction? Will they return some of the African and Asian art objects which have undoubtedly been stolen or looted? Will the British Museum make a historic deal or at least a gesture in the direction of Nigeria regarding the Benin bronzes or with the Greeks regarding the Parthenon Marbles? Will the British Museum return the Rosetta Stone to Egypt? Will the Ethnological Museum Berlin be willing to give up one or two of the 482 Benin bronzes which they allegedly bought from Britain? Will the Germans finally free Nefertiti and let her return home to Egypt?

It does seem that the Europeans are not very much concerned about regaining some of the moral standing they have lost in the rest of the world through practices which are in flagrant contradiction to their preaching. Incidentally, it should be noted that the Italian authorities agreed that some of the returned items were bought in good faith by the American museums, unaware of the illegality tainting those objects. But this did not prevent them from requesting their return. Could the Germans and the Austrians also plead good faith at the time of purchasing the Benin bronzes when the person responsible for their acquisition, Luschan had clearly admitted he knew they were brought to Europe as a result of the British invasion of Benin in 1897? It would be interesting to see how the courts in the United States react when this issue comes before them.

Where do the agreements between the Italians and the US museums leave the infamous Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums? The Declaration was intended as a defence against all requests, claims and actions for the restitution of art objects allegedly stolen, looted or in any way illegally in possession of some of the world’s important museums. Now, if three of the signatories of the Declaration_ J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston _show they are willing to abandon the stand or the main principle of that Declaration, what is its worth now?

The Italians have announced their intention of proposing the establishment of an international structure within UNESCO to make available to other countries their experience in this matter. Such a body will hopefully be given a strong mandate to act and not to become too dependent on the will of the parties as is the case of the existing Intergovernmental Committee.

Will the African countries finally organize themselves properly and demonstrate their will to recover their stolen/looted patrimony or will they turn to the very institutions holding their cultural objects for advice on these issues? Will the governments show they care for their cultural institutions and attribute sufficient funds for their museums and similar institutions in order to avoid their becoming dependent on their counterparts in Europe and the United States?

The Italians have in any case demonstrated that the fight to recover stolen/looted cultural objects is not in vain but that it requires persistent efforts and a long struggle. They should be congratulated for showing others the light both in their recovery of objects from the American museums and their returning stolen objects to Iran, Pakistan, Ethiopia, and Peru. The museums should also be congratulated for their role in making the recovery possible. They have understood that it is in the interest of the international community if such looting is made unattractive by the museums not purchasing items of dubious origin. Both the Italians and the Americans have demonstrated that in restitution of cultural objects, there are no losers. We all win.

If the Italians abide by their new policy and declarations, all roads will indeed soon lead to Rome; some persons will go there to congratulate them whilst others will protest at what they consider a dangerous precedent.

Kwame Opoku, Vienna.22 December, 2007.

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