February 13, 2004

Looted armour returned to France

Posted at 2:06 pm in Similar cases

A major British Museum has returned an artefact from their collection to another museum – an action that in the past many museums have claimed would set a precedent for the emptying of their collections. Presumably the decision to make this move suggests that the Royal Armouries are certain that the sky won’t fall in on them as a result.

The Guardian

Looted armour sent back to France
Maev Kennedy, arts and heritage correspondent in Paris
Thursday February 12, 2004
The Guardian

Yesterday, in a handsome panelled room in the shadow of Napoleon’s tomb in Paris, something happened which will send a shiver down the spine of many museum directors: a major British museum sent something back.

The exhibit concerned was a pair of tassets – thigh covers from a suit of 16th-century armour – which probably left Paris in a soldier’s kitbag. Almost two centuries later they have returned to the Musée de l’Armée on the Eurostar.

Repatriation is a bitterly contentious issue among international museums, and the case of the British Museum and the Parthenon marbles is only the most notorious among hundreds.

The Royal Armouries and the Musée de l’Armée both described the return as “a long-term loan”, which set no precedents for other collections.

However, the Royal Armouries unequivocally described the armour as “looted from Paris after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815”.

It is thought that it was among items taken by the army of the Duke of Wellington from the French national arms and armour collection, then housed in a former convent church in Paris.

It is only described as “a suit of knight’s armour, with helmet and shield”, but was probably in fact parts of three different suits, including the tassets.

The spoils of war were put on display at the Rotunda army museum in Woolwich, where in 1822 a journal describes Wellington tactlessly showing them off to the French ambassador, who “could not conceal his fury at the sight”.

The tassets were long ago identified by experts as belonging to a suit of armour housed in Les Invalides. It was tailor made for some slim, tall, fabulously wealthy aristocrat around 1520-1530, possibly by Milanese craftsmen working in France. It is decorated in imitation of fashionable dress, with gilding and engraving suggesting slashed silk and brocade, and was originally gilded, and heated until the metal turned peacock blue, in alternate stripes.

Yesterday Paul Evans, chief executive of the Royal Armouries, stressed that he had volunteered the loan, which was never sought by the French museum. He described the return as: “A gesture of goodwill and a symbol of the friendship between our two museums.”

Despite their history the two pieces fitted back into position, with a turn of a 500-year-old screw, as if Waterloo and Wellington had never happened.

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