April 30, 2005

Should looted artwork be returned to its rightful owners?

Posted at 12:00 pm in Similar cases

In response to the return of the Axum Obelisks to Ethiopia (covered in detail over the last month) the Boston Globe has an interesting article about other similar looted items, & points out that looting is still very much a current problem, not just a historical phase, as evidenced after the fall of Baghdad.

The Boston Globe

The Boston Globe
Return looted treasures to their rightful owners

By Grant Parker | April 30, 2005

LAST WEEK a cargo jet brought the first part of a 1,700-year-old Ethiopian pillar from Italy to its historic home in the city of Axum. The return of this treasure has great significance, not just for the Italian and Ethiopian governments, but for cultural property disputes worldwide.
Many, in Ethiopia and beyond, have welcomed its return. It ends decades of public outcry against successive Italian governments since Mussolini had the pillar — generally referred to as an obelisk but more correctly called a stele — brought from Axum in 1937, during the Italian wartime occupation.

The return is a cause for celebration because it represents a victory in the struggle for a more equitable worldwide policy on cultural property. UNESCO and its International Council of Museums have sought to secure international cooperation on the preservation of antiquities in their original locations. But efforts such as UNESCO’s resolutions of 1970 and 1995 have struggled to get the support they need to be effective.

It was in May 2002, during my own stay in Rome on a visit to study the city’s dozen or so ancient obelisks, that the Axum stele was struck by lightning and seriously damaged. This event seems to have jolted the Italian government into action. It had promised to return the stele since a treaty of 1947, but then dragged its heels. No longer could it claim that it was safer in Rome than at Axum.

For the Ethiopian government, the stele is a source of national pride, diverting attention away from contemporary issues such as war, poverty, famine, HIV/AIDS, and government corruption. It dates back to the third century AD, at a time when the ancient Ethiopian kingdom prospered from international trade. Soon thereafter, Axum became an early home of the Christian church.

Today, the Axum airport, sporting a new terminal, is part of the historical circuit that brings dollar-paying tourists to a variety of archeological sites. The celebrity status of the stele should strengthen Ethiopia’s appeal to international tourists, especially now that the cessation of war with Eritrea has made travel there easier.

With the stele’s return, pressure may increase on the many countries still in possession of looted treasures.

In the British invasion of Ethiopia in 1867-68, for example, several hundred objects were taken to Britain, and are now mostly in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. The British government already has been under pressure, especially before the 2004 Olympics, to return to Athens the Parthenon Friezes, often referred to as the Elgin Marbles. That pressure is now likely to increase, particularly if the Blair government wins reelection and follows through on its promise to strengthen ties with Africa.

The removal of ancient objects from their original sites is not just a thing of the past, as the looting of the Baghdad Museum in April 2003 has shown. While some of the Iraqi objects have been recovered, most have passed illicitly into private hands. Italy itself continues to suffer the transnational looting of archeological sites. Even large ones such as Pompeii are inadequately guarded and suffer theft on a regular basis. In the face of various international agreements, Silvio Berlusconi’s government has done little to protect Italian antiquities from looting and the illicit trade in antiquities; on the contrary, members of his party sought in November to legalize private ownership.

The Swiss government also has provided a boon to the illegal antiquities trade. Objects lacking legitimate provenance can become legal if they travel via that route into the European Union. The Swiss government has, however, recently vowed to exert tighter control.

Meanwhile, the antiquities market, benefiting from improved worldwide transportation, remains a juggernaut that continues to gain in strength. It affects not only war-torn developing countries such as Ethiopia and Afghanistan but wealthy industrialized ones as well.

The Axum stele, in its visibility, points us to these invisible crimes. Let’s hope that its return signals the beginning of stricter control over the import and export of cultural property across international borders.

Grant Parker is an assistant professor of classical studies and history at Duke University and is writing a book about ancient Roman importation of Egyptian obelisks.

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  1. DR.KWAME OPOKU said,

    10.29.07 at 7:13 pm


    The return home of the final piece of the Axum obelisk to Ethiopia is an undoubted victory for Ethiopia, Italy the rule of law and democracy
    The Ethiopians must be congratulated for their persistent and unwavering struggle for the return of a cultural object and a symbol of their identity which was forcibly removed by the Italian fascists under Benito Mussolini in their attempt to colonize Ethiopia some 68 years ago. Years of protests, anger and anguish have preceded this final and historic victory of Ethiopia. All Africans must rejoice with them, in the hope that this signals a new beginning in our relationship with former colonizing European powers as far as the return of stolen or illegally transferred cultural objects are concerned. France, Great Britain, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Holland, Belgium and the rest of those countries, whether former colonizers or not, such as Austria and Switzerland, should take note of this historical event for which the Italians are to be congratulated.
    It surely was not an easy task to convince many Italians who, like the rest of Europeans, have been subjected to false propaganda for many decades by the so-called experts who claim that it is legal and right to deprive others of their cultural objects through the use of force. They have been convinced that if you are strong enough, you can take whatever you want from another country, particularly, African and Asian countries and keep it despite claims for return by the countries of origin. They have been taught that Resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly, the Conventions of UNESCO and other bodies discouraging such practices and urging the settlement of outstanding disputes are not binding and should therefore be ignored.
    They have heard important museum directors, from museums such as the Louver, The British Museum, Musée du Quai Branly, Museum für Völkerkunde Wien, Ethnologisches Museum, Staatlische Museen zu Berlin, The Art Institute of Chicago, Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence, Prado Museum, Madrid and others state that these stolen objects are now part of the culture of the countries which stole them and are now keeping them. The supporters of Mussolini’s fascists in Italy must have seen this return as a final and definite confirmation of the defeat of their racist ideology which places the African at the bottom of their racist ladder of human development: a return to Africans of the 160-tonne obelisk which El Duce himself has ordered to be taken to Rome as a war trophy. The return of such cultural objects to their owners should be seen as part of a long-term process to discard racist and imperialist superiority complexes. These racist complexes have hindered in the past the observance of the principles of equality and the respect for human rights in Europe and elsewhere.
    The return of the obelisk is also a triumph for the rule of law and democracy. The rule of law is incompatible with the use of force and certainly the acquisition of cultural objects, whether in war or in peace through the use of force cannot be considered as compatible with democracy. You cannot preach democracy and resort to the use of force to deprive other nations of their cultural objects. I am well aware that there are many voices in the United States, Great Britain, France, Italy, and elsewhere who do not think the use of force to remove cultural objects from Asia and Africa have anything to do with the rule of law and human rights. Some may consider the return of these cultural objects as a necessary catharsis.
    The return of the obelisk also gives the lie to those museum directors who act as if the removal of stolen cultural objects from their countries will somehow affect their cultural identity. Italian culture will surely survive the removal of the Axum obelisk. Will the British, French, German and Austrian cultures survive the removal of stolen African cultural objects from their countries? Will Berlin survive the return of Nefertiti to Cairo?
    What can the reader do to help this process of restitution? The main problem, as far the average reader is concerned, is the absence of information on what objects have been stolen from which country and by which country. Many museums do not even list most of these items in their handbooks or catalogues and keep them safely in their depots.
    A first step would be to consult the internet sites of movements such as the African Reparation Movement to see the list of stolen items from your country or other countries. If there are museums near where you live, visit them to see if you can look at some of these objects and try to ask questions. You should also look at the UNESCO homepage to find some literature on the subject.
    The main problem for us as Africans is the lack of interest on the part of most of our governments for this issue. Many have not even bothered to request from the former colonial governments for the return of our cultural objects which were taken away during the colonial period. You must ask why. Many of our intellectuals and museums experts have also kept a deafening silence. Many of our countries have not even bothered to ratify the UNIDROIT and UNESCO Conventions on this matter. It almost looks as if our leaders are not interested in cultural matters. Where then is the famous pride in our culture?

    Kwame Opoku,Vienna,29 October

  2. Mr, Anthony J. Fierro said,

    07.26.15 at 10:03 pm

    I need contact names and phone numbers to seek help in a recovery of an oil on linen mural that was in the private museum of Benito Mussolini in the Villa Torona at Rome that is now located in Pennsylvania that may be an art object of reparation or not of Italy. Identity and provenance by an expert would help/ brought from Naples through Sicily and USA

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