February 20, 2010

Ten famous cases of disputed artefacts in museums

Posted at 10:17 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

Among the vast numbers of disputed artefacts in museums & galleries, some have a high profile, whilst others are barely known. Time Magazine has attempted to draw up a list of what they feel are some of the most currently significant cases.

This article was published a few months ago, but I only recently came across it – explaining the fact that the information on the Louvre’s Egyptian Frescos is already out of date.


Top 10 Plundered Artifacts
History is big business. Plundered art and antiquities trade to the tune of at least $3 billion a year, much to the chagrin of nations struggling to reclaim their lost artifacts. In honor of a recent spat between the Egyptian government and the Louvre museum in Paris over the fate of fresco fragments, TIME examines 10 plundered antiquities and the conflicts they’ve created.

The Louvre’s Egyptian Frescos

A set of ancient fresco fragments is at the center of a nasty feud between Paris’s Louvre Museum and the Egyptian government. Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt’s antiquities department, claims the Louvre bought the fragments last year despite knowing they were taken from a tomb in Egypt’s storied Valley of the Kings in the 1980s, a prime spot for grave-robbers. Egypt, which has made reclaiming ancient art taken from its country a top priority, said they would sever cooperation with the Louvre unless the fragments were returned. A museum representative claimed on Oct. 7 that the Louvre was unaware the fragments were stolen, and said the museum would consider sending the fresco pieces back to Egypt.

Current status: For now, the pieces remain in the Louvre’s collection.

Nefertiti’s Bust

During a 1912 Egyptian excavation, German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt discovered the bust of Nefertiti, a 14th Century BC Egyptian queen. He claimed to have an agreement with the Egyptian government that included rights to half his finds and — using this as justification — Berlin has proudly displayed the item since 1923. But a new document suggests Borchardt intentionally misled Egyptian authorities about Nefertiti, showing the bust in a poor light and lying about its composition in order to keep his most-prized find. The Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities has repeatedly asked Germany to give the bust back — or at the very least let it return home on a temporary basis.

Current Status: Germany insists their ownership of Nefertiti is without doubt, and Berlin’s Egyptian Museum curators maintain that even a brief loan may damage the bust.

The Elgin Marbles

The Elgin Marbles receive their name from the British lord who craftily spirited them away from Greece. Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin and ambassador to the Ottoman Empire — occupiers of Greece in the early 19th century — grew to admire the Parthenon’s extensive collection of ancient marble sculptures and began extracting and expatriating them to Britain in 1801. Lord Elgin claimed his imprimatur from an Ottoman sultan, who said he could remove anything from the Parthenon that did not interfere with the ancient citadel’s walls. Despite objections that Lord Elgin had “ruined Athens” by the time his work was done in 1805, the British Government purchased the marbles from him in 1816. They’ve been housed at the British Museum ever since.

Current Status: Greece considers Lord Elgin’s agreement with the Ottomans dubious at best. They claim the Sultan was bribed and that, as an occupier, he really had no authority over the Parthenon to begin with. Calls to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece have fallen on deaf ears; the British argue that giving the marbles back would do everything from irreparably destroying them to creating more demand for the return of ancient art, draining the collections of European museums.

The Hottentot Venus

The Hottentot Venus was not a piece of art at all. Instead, it — rather, she — was a person named Sarah Baartman. An indigenous woman from an area now located in South Africa, Baartman was taken to London in 1810 and paraded through Europe, on display for the public to gawk at her full figure and for scientists to explore the reasons for her voluptuous appearance. The indignities continued past her death at the age of 26 — until 1985, Baartman’s sex organs and brain were housed in Paris’ Musee de l’Homme, ostensibly for scientific study.

Current Status: Calls by South Africans for the return of Baartman’s remains began in the early 1980s; bowing to pressure, the Musee de l’Homme took the body off display. In 1992, Nelson Mandela, then the president of South Africa, issued a formal request for the Baartman’s return, but it took a decade more of hand wringing for the French to repatriate her remains. She was buried in South Africa on August 9, 2002.

Ramses Mummy

With a history equally rich in antiquities and the looting of said antiquities, Egypt is exhaustive in its attempts to recover stolen artifacts. Few items are more prized than the mummified remains of its ancient pharaohs, and Egypt has tried for years to recoup what is likely the 3000-year-old body of Pharaoh Ramses I from North American museums. It is suspected that grave robbers sold the body to a Canadian museum sometime in the 1860s.

Current Status: In 1999, Atlanta’s Michael Carlos Museum received the mummy and used carbon dating and CT scans to place the mummy to the era of Ramses I. Upon confirmation, they offered to return the body to Egypt, where it is now housed at the Luxor Museum.

Euphronios Krater

Even with the best of intentions, it may be difficult for museums to completely avoid the acquisition of ill-gotten artifacts. Consider the case of the Euphronios krater. The Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired the 2500-year-old krater — an ornate bowl used to combine water with wine — for $1 million in 1972, thrilled to find one of the few known examples of the ancient painter Euphronios. It had been purchased, however, from Robert Hecht, now on trial in Italy on charges of conspiring to deal in looted antiquities. And while any cloud of suspicion over the krater’s provenance was unbeknownst to Met curators in 1972, the museum faced calls from Italy to return the artifact, originally discovered outside Rome.

Current Status: After several years of negotiation, the Met returned the krater to Italy in 2008 in exchange for the rights to display several comparable artifacts on loan.

Priam’s Treasure

Germany’s plunder during World War II was legendary, but with Priam’s Treasure they were the victims.

Not that we should feel sorry.

German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann discovered the artifacts — mostly gold, copper shields and weapons — in Anatolia 1837 and named them for Priam, king of Troy. Schliemann illegally smuggled the loot to Berlin, convinced he had found evidence of the Iliad’s famed ancient city. But in a bit of karmic payback, Soviet soldiers stole the treasure from Berlin during the waning days of World War II, keeping their bounty a secret for decades until the artifacts turned up on display in Moscow in 1993.

Current Status: Russia is technically bound by a 1990 treaty that provides for the return of all pilfered art and artifacts back to Germany. But Russian museums are now stonewalling, saying they plan to keep the treasure as reparation for Germany’s destruction of Soviet cities during the war.

Koh-i-Noor Diamond

There are many claims to the Koh-i-Noor diamond.

The jewel may have passed through hands and nations for as many as 5000 years — some think ancient Mesopotamian texts make reference to the Koh-i-Noor as early as 3200 B.C. It may have once been a monstrous 793 carets, before a jeweler’s maladroitness and a few subsequent refinements chopped it to the mere 109-caret chunk it is today. The Moguls possessed it in the 16th Century, only to lose it to the Iranians, who then lost it to the Afghans. It later went to the Sikhs and ended up with the British. And while the stone carried with it a warning that it would bring harm to its owner, Queen Victoria paid it no heed. It circulated through the British crown jewels until finding a home in the coronation crown of Elizabeth, Britain’s most recent Queen Mother.

Current Status: Many lay claim to the Koh-i-Noor, including the Taliban, who trace its origin in India through Afghanistan in ancient days. Indian Sikhs have asked for the diamond back too, as they were the most recent holders before the British. For their part, the British are deaf to these claims, arguing since the diamond has passed through so many hands for so long, they have just as much right to the stone as anyone.

Geronimo’s Skull

Are the members of one of the world’s most prestigious and legendary secret societies grave robbers? Descendants of Geronimo want answers to the persistent rumors that members of Yale’s Skull and Bones Society unearthed the remains of the Apache warrior to bring back to their New Haven campus.

Current Status: Descendant Harlyn Geronimo filed a lawsuit in February against Yale, the Order of Skull and Bones and members of the U.S. government, calling for the return of any of Geronimo’s remains. A Yale spokesman had no comment, but some experts believe Bonesman raided the wrong grave anyway. No matter — the Bonesmen are also rumored to possess two more famed skulls, those of Pancho Villa and President Martin Van Buren.

Chinese Bronzes

The recent attempt to sell a pair of brass Chinese animal heads took an inventive turn after they were put up for auction as part of the sale of French designer Yves Saint Laurent’s art collection. A $40 million bid was received for the two heads (a rabbit and a rat), which French and British troops removed from a clock at China’s Old Summer Palace during the second Opium War in 1860. One hitch — the buyer had no intention of paying. Chinese art dealer Cai Mingchao submitted the massive bid to protest the sale of the heads, which many Chinese see as unfairly torn from their cultural patrimony.

Current Status: Saint Laurent’s partner said he plans to keep the heads and is “thrilled” the sale failed. And while Christie’s may consider charges against Cai, they will likely relent after an outpouring of support from the Chinese public for his actions.

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  1. DR.KWAME OPOKU said,

    02.22.10 at 7:29 am

    Could it really be that the author of the interesting Time summary of disputed artefacts in the British Museum is not aware of the dispute concerning the Benin Bronzes? Perhaps it is a measure of the success of mendacious propaganda that no one has asked for the return of the Benin Bronzes.

  2. Matthew said,

    02.22.10 at 10:17 am

    I was assuming that the list was intended to give a wide range of types of cases – and not to focus too much on specific countries or specific institutions. If one had taken that approach, it would have been possible to do a Top 10 just for the British Museum. Other notable omissions for instance are the Rosetta Stone, The Sphinx’s Beard & the Cyrus Cylinder.

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