January 12, 2006

The ethics of Italy’s demands for the return of artefacts

Posted at 1:34 pm in Similar cases

Italy has been demanding the Getty & other US museums return artefacts that they allege were acquired illegally. However, how do these claims sit with the extensive delays that Italy created when restoring the Axum Obelisk to Ethiopia?

The Standard (China)

Reluctantly parting with art
Elias Wondimu has heard that Italian leaders want North American museums to hand back dozens of artifacts that came from Italian soil, and he’s not ready to argue about that.
Christopher Reynolds
Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Elias Wondimu has heard that Italian leaders want North American museums to hand back dozens of artifacts that came from Italian soil, and he’s not ready to argue about that.

But, says Wondimu, a 32-year-old Ethiopian expatriate in Hollywood and publisher of history books, if there’s going to be a global debate over Italy and cultural patrimony, he has three words to contribute: Obelisk of Axum.

The Obelisk of Axum is an elaborately inscribed stone monolith, 23.77 meters from base to tip, that spent most of the 20th century in the middle of a busy Roman piazza.

In the eyes of many an Ethiopian, it’s 180 tons of evidence that 20th century Italy snapped up treasures in Ethiopia, then resisted their return for half a century with the same lawless zeal that Italian leaders accuse US museums of displaying.

Early last year, after nearly 60 years of promises deferred, Italian leaders delivered the obelisk back to its homeland, where it awaits reconstruction.

“We were very, very happy to return the obelisk,” said a spokeswoman at the Italian Embassy in Washington, citing “our important and excellent relationship with Ethiopia.”

Some scholars have hailed the event as a crucial international precedent. But many Ethiopians contend that Italy is still holding other stolen treasures from the 1930s.

“It’s quite ironic for me to see them try to reclaim what they’ve lost while they are keeping others from reclaiming stolen property,” Wondimu said.

In holding the obelisk over the years, Italian officials have cited many factors, including Ethiopia’s political instability and the logistical challenges of returning such a massive object.

In many respects, the case of the prodigal obelisk is a bit of singular history. But it’s also a potent reminder that the more time spent counting up claims of archeological injustice, the harder it gets to separate victims from villains.

“It is easier to ask for something that belongs to you than to return what belongs to someone else,” says Richard Pankhurst, a professor at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University, who has been calling upon Italy to return items for more than 20 years.

“This not an easy issue for the world to resolve,” says Ronald Olson, the Los Angeles attorney hired by the Getty Trust to help make peace between the Getty and the Italian and Greek governments. “How many times have you visited the British Museum?”

For decades, Greek officials have been demanding that the British Museum return the Elgin Marbles, a series of sculptures taken from Greece in the 19th century.

In North America, arguments over museum pieces have flared for nearly as long. The center of controversy now is the JPaul Getty Museum and dozens of objects it bought or was given in the 1990s. Getty leaders and former antiquities curator Marion True say they never bought anything they knew had been illegally collected.

Italian prosecutors, now trying True and dealer Robert Hecht in Rome, say they’ll produce evidence showing that they did know.

One key to that case is an Italian law, passed under fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in 1939, that bans export of objects excavated since that year.

Four years earlier, Mussolini had invaded and conquered Ethiopia in the first of the fascist and Nazi aggressions that were to precipitate World War II.

In 1937 the Italians stripped the city of Axum (or Aksum) of its monolith. Brought to Italy, it was put up in the Piazza di Porta Capena, not far from the Colosseum, where it stood as a reminder of Italian colonial ambition, just across the street from the Ministry for Italian Africa.

In 1941, the British drove the Italians out of Ethiopia, and in 1945 Mussolini was assassinated.

In 1947, as part of a peace treaty, Italy’s postwar government agreed to return the monument and “all works of art, religious objects, archives and objects of historical value belonging to Ethiopia.”

In 1956 the Italians promised again. And again in 1997. Yet in Rome, the obelisk remained.

Then in 2002, lightning struck.

Amid a Roman storm, a bolt from the sky struck the obelisk, which had no lightning rod attached, breaking off several feet of granite in chunks.

This substantially undercut the argument that the Italians could better care for the artifact than the Ethiopians could.

And in a series of three delicate operations in November and December 2003, workers took down a 40-ton segment from the top of the monument, then a 71-ton segment, then the final 77-ton segment.

Later the same year, when global leaders gathered in Rome for a summit on hunger in a United Nations building across from the monument, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi seized the moment and excoriated Italian leaders for putting up “one excuse after another” as Ethiopians pined for their treasure and the Italian capital’s smog ate away at the stonework.

“This,” Zenawi said, “is nothing short of an outrage.”

In late 2004, the Italian government got down to business: As part of a series of agreements that included a major loan package to underwrite an Ethiopian hydroelectric project, Italy agreed once more to send the obelisk back.

Last April, a Russian-made Antonov-124 cargo plane – one of the few aircraft in the world able to handle such a heavy cargo – carried the first segment back to Ethiopia, landing at Aksum shortly before dawn.

Italian officials have estimated that the obelisk’s relocation cost US$7 million (HK$54.6 million) or more.

Ethiopian officials, who first hoped to have the obelisk up by September, have the three pieces in storage and are still discussing how they might be re- erected without disturbing the many ruins still buried in the area.


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