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The difficulties of recovering looted artefacts

The recovery of looted artefacts is often accompanied by many underlying political dimensions – both on the part of the party requesting return & of the current holders.

From:
Democracy Arsenal [1]

March 02, 2009
Stolen Art and International Relations
Posted by Hanna Lundqvist

The looting of art and historical artifacts is often dismissed as a factor in international relations. Having studied art history in college and now working in foreign policy, I feel that when dealing with an issue portfolio that includes nuclear proliferation, war, economic crises, and global warming, the lower priority of art and culture is usually reasonable – however, this does not mean that the problem of looting should be entirely ignored, particularly because of the strong ties between art and national pride. Stolen art is not merely of concern due to the loss of object context for art historians and archeologists or cultural patrimony. Though usually rightly on the back-burner, looted art is a legitimate and often hot-tempered foreign policy issue.

Two recent stories highlight various problems of looting. Last week, the Iraq National Museum, which suffered shockingly destructive looting in 2003, partially re-opened with many, but not nearly all of its lost artifacts returned. While many in the art community, myself included, celebrated the re-opening of the museum as a positive step towards repairing the damage done by the looting and celebrating Iraqi history, culture and stability, the Economist has a disturbing piece on the politics of the re-opening that deserves careful study. It alleges that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pushed for the re-opening of the museum as a political ploy against the objections of museum professionals, including former director Donny George. Not only does this story have implications for the nature of the Iraqi government, it also serves as a prominent example of the strong relationship between art and national pride. I had the honor of hearing Donny George, who fled to the United States in 2006 after threats to his family, speak last year, and his impassioned plea for assistance in repairing the damage done to the museum, and to combat the continuing desecration of Iraq’s archeological sites was a parallel to many people’s opposition to the Iraq war as a whole. For example, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld dismissed the importance of the looting as it was happening, while the U.S. officer in charge of a review of the looting observed, adding an additional importance to the issue of stolen art:
“I know that millions of dollars’ worth of antiquities flow out of the country each year. And it would be naïve to think the insurgents aren’t getting a major share of the loot.”

While the most familiar stories of stolen art center around Nazi Germany, Italy, the Elgin marbles, the Getty Museum’s Greek art, and the looting of Iraq’s National Museum, the plunder of Chinese artifacts has recently come into international light due to the sensational Yves Saint Laurent/Pierre Bergé auction at Christie’s in Paris last week, which included two Chinese bronze animal heads of disputed status. Like the Greek and Italian cases, this story particularly emphasizes the ties between national pride and art. China fiercely protested the sale of the bronzes, which it claims were looted, and Mr. Bergé invoked Tibet as his reason for not returning the statues. The narrative became more complicated today when a man claiming to be the anonymous winning bidder on the statues said he would not pay the bid in protest of the sale and out of patriotic duty. Though not as serious as French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s meeting with the Dalai Lama or the United States’ human rights report, China’s outrage at the sale of these types of artifacts forms a part of its relationship with the West and deserves some degree of consideration.

If you’re interested in more information about the problems of looting and why it’s worth caring about, take a look at SAFE: Saving Antiquities for Everyone, an organization that works to raise awareness of stolen art and the damage it does to our understanding of our cultural history.