August 21, 2009

The reasons given for non return of cultural property

Posted at 1:00 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

This is the second part of Kwame Opoku’s article on the reasons given by museums against restitution as a way of avoiding confronting the real issues.

Modern Ghana

By Kwame Opoku, Dr.
Feature Article | 12 hours ago


IV. What is to be done?
In view of the very clear position of the major Western museums not to return any of the looted/stolen African artefacts, what should be done? Below are few proposals in this regard.

1. Urgent examination of existing cooperation agreements and arrangements between African museums and Western museums.

There is a need to establish clearly what benefits accrue from such arrangements and whether the agreements respond to the needs of the African public as opposed to those of the Western public.

It is intolerable that Western museums that cooperate with African museums continue to maintain a colonialist and an imperialist stance as regards the restitution of looted African artefacts. They do not feel obliged to moderate even their tone and language.

Nigerian institutions have been cooperating with the British Museum but that museum refuses even to consider the repatriation of the Benin bronzes. On the contrary, the director of the museum, in a recent speech, argued that the Benin bronzes were made of materials from Europe and that gave the museum a legitimacy to hold the bronzes. (26)

The British Museum is known to have been selling these objects and even sold some to the Nigerian Government. In the recent Benin exhibition, the Western institutions cooperating with Nigeria made it clear that they had no intention of returning any looted object. When one considers that the British Museum has some 700 pieces, the Ethnology Museum, Berlin, 580 and the Ethnology Museum, Vienna, 167 pieces, the extent of their contempt for Africans becomes clear. Do they need Benin cultural artefacts more than the people of Benin? None of the Western institution was prepared to return even one piece to the Benin Royal Family, the legitimate owners. Self-respect and national pride should set limits to cooperation with such Western institutions.

As far as I am informed, no African museum has a single European masterpiece, even on loan, from a Western institution. Is this how cooperation should look like?

2. Ratification of Major Conventions on Culture.
One depressing factor in discussions on restitution of looted African artefacts is the fact that many African countries seem reluctant to ratify the major conventions on culture: UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, adopted in Paris, 14 November 1970 ( and the UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects, adopted in Rome 24 June 1995. ( ). In an article in 1999, Prof. Folarin Shyllon noted that only twenty African States had become parties to the UNESCO Convention and not a single African State was party to the UNIDROIT Convention. (27) The situation has improved a little since then. Twenty – seven African countries are State Parties to the UNESCO Convention. Only seven African countries have become State Parties to the UNIDROIT Convention. (28)

The two conventions are the main international instruments for combating illicit traffic in artefacts. If African Governments are really interested in the efforts to stem the depletion of cultural heritage, they should ratify these conventions without further delay. Such ratifications would help to underline their determination and commitment to recovering the looted artefacts.

Whilst Western States seem ever ready to act outside the framework of International Law, if their interests so dictate, it is clearly in the overall interest of African States to strengthen the international regime.

3. Inventory of Looted/Stolen artefacts.
African States should finally establish inventories of their national heritage. Those artefacts which were looted in the colonial period and those recently stolen or looted should be clearly marked so as to help in identifying the present holders. Sources for the inventory of the looted objects could be catalogues of exhibitions, books on African art and individual visits to museums known for harbouring looted objects such as the British Museum, London, the Louvre, Paris, Musée du Quai Branly Paris, Ethnology Museum, Berlin, Ethnology Museum, Vienna, Royal Museum for Central Africa,Tervuren and others.

4. Policy Statements.
African States should issue clear policy statements outlining their position regarding objects stolen in the colonial period and recent loot. It is surprising that States such as Nigeria still have not issued clear policy statements on this subject even though Parliaments in the past and some Ministers have made requests for the restitution of the Benin Bronzes. There is need for a statement or document that we can all refer to when necessary.

5. Formal Requests for Restitution
African States should finally lodge formal requests for the restitution of the looted/stolen artefacts. Such demands should be sent to Governments, Parliaments, political parties, Museums and other institutions concerned.

Such formal demands should state the full extent of the claim e.g. requesting, in addition to the physical objects, interests. They should also ask for interest that has accrued since the illegal lootings as well as a share of the financial benefits that the museums have derived from the possession of the artefacts. It may be difficult to work this out in detail but at least, a substantial compensation should be paid for withholding those artefacts for so long and depriving the owners of their whilst the museums made profit from their possession.

6. Legal Actions and Dispute Settlement
It is now clear that quiet diplomacy has not resulted in any significant cases of restitution nor is it likely to do so in the near future. The looted cultural objects, as national treasures and property, should have been returned at the time of Independence. Many African States have been independent since 1960 (Ghana, 1957) and have expressed their wishes for restitution but there have been no remarkable results. On the contrary, Western museums are becoming more hysterical in their denials.

African States should finally proceed to taking legal actions in individual Western countries and making use of other processes of negotiation, such as the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee (Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation) (29)

It is amazing and discouraging that Nigeria for instance, has not submitted the case of the Benin Bronzes to this Committee.

7. Laws and Regulations
The laws and regulations regarding cultural artefacts and their exportation should be reviewed and strengthened. They should be presented in an easy form for general consultation. It is frustrating when these laws are not easily available. Severer penalties for looting should be imposed.

8. Public Information.
The general public in the African States should be fully informed about activities and actions on restitution in which national and other public institutions are involved. This educational process could start with providing materials that explain the events that led to looting of Africa cultural artefacts. For instance, in Nigeria, it is obvious that documentation prepared should be prepared by the Government or other institutions on the Benin Expedition of 1897. The availability of material for popular consumption will yield immense benefit not only in the particular context but also in other areas. People in Nigeria and elsewhere will come to learn about Benin, Ife, Nok and other cultures and appreciate the very rich and varied cultures that exist in Nigeria, from North to South and from West to East.

Materials on restitution and other cultural items should be made available also on the internet. A special unit of the Ministry of Public Information/Ministry of Culture should be charged with producing material and putting them on the web. There should be specific sites dedicated to restitution of cultural artefacts.

Education should also emphasize the damage caused by looting and the need to protect and preserve cultural heritage.

9. Coordination at the African and International Levels

Since most African States have experienced great difficulties in trying to secure the return of their looted/stolen artefacts from Western States, it stands to reason that coordination of plans and exchange of information would be to the benefit of all. Some States such as Egypt have had some success. Egypt has been successful in the last few years in securing the return of some 5000 artefacts. Nefertiti however is still in captivity in Berlin. Some Germans even argue she is more German than Egyptian. The British refuse to discuss the return of the Rosetta Stone. Ethiopia has secured the return of the Axum obelisk which the Italian Fascist Government of Mussolini looted. Ghana, Nigeria and other States have not been so successful. Perhaps more consultation may reveal that the Egyptian success is largely due to the presence of the energetic Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass. Hawass has undoubted authority to speak for Egypt. In other African countries it is difficult to know who speaks for the country on such matters. It may also be helpful to coordinate efforts within the framework of the African Union.

At the international level UNESCO, ICOM and the United Nations have resources which have not as yet been systematically utilized by the African countries. The secretariats of the organizations have long experience which could be used more effectively.

Other countries such as China, Turkey and Greece could be helpful in restitution activities, having all suffered imperialist domination leading to loss of national cultural artefacts.

10. Western Public and Restitution
One aspect of the attempts to recover artefacts looted that has not been given much attention, is the public opinion in various Western States.

Contrary to the impression often transmitted by some parts of the culture establishment in Western States, especially by the directors of the major museums, their people do not support them in the negative position taken against restitution. The majority of the public, while appreciating the advantage of being able to see foreign artefacts in the West, are not in favour of retaining such artefacts against the will of those who produced them. Often, as a result of inadequate information about the circumstances of the acquisition of specific objects, the public is, generally, ignorant about disputes concerning ownership of specific objects. Where the public has adequate information, their inner convictions and sense of justice revolts against the untenable position of the museums.

If we take as an example, Great Britain where many looted objects are to be found in the museums, the public is not behind the museums directors where adequate information is available. The British Museum has always denied the request of the Greeks to return the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles. Countless United Nations and UNESCO resolutions have urged the British to return the Marbles. The dispute has been in existence for decades but has now gained added momentum because of the new ultra modern Acropolis Museum.

Many public opinion polls have shown that the majority of the British people are in favour of returning the Marbles to Athens. Recent polls by the Guardian have confirmed this 94.8 5% were in favour of returning the Marbles to Athens and only 5.2% were against. (30)

African States should seek to bring the issue of restitution to the public in the Western States so that additional pressure could be exerted on the museums and the politicians.

Kwame Opoku, 17 August, 2009


* A version of this article will be published in

An Art exhibition on Benin, by Peju Layiwola.
1. Peju Layiwola, “Edo Art: Memory and Reconstruction”, Lecture delivered at University of Zurich, 2005; see also “The Benin Massacre: Memories and Experiences” Barbara Plankensteiner (Ed), Benin: Kings and Rituals – Court Arts from Nigeria, Snoeck, 2007, pp.83-89.

2. The British Museum and other museums have always refused to tell us exactly how many of the artefacts they possess. The German anthropologist, Felix von Luschan, head of the Berlin Institute for Ethnology and the person responsible for acquiring many of the bronzes for his institute estimated that about 2400 of the Benin objects ended up in Europe.

In a Memorandum entitled The Case of Benin (Appendix 21 ) submitted by Prince Edun Akenzua to the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport of the British House of Commons in 2000, the Prince stated “that the British carried away more than 3,000 pieces of Benin cultural property.”

Most European and American museums have some Benin objects.

According to Charlotta Dohlvik, Museums and their Voices: a Contemporary Study of the Benin Bronzes, (Master’s Dissertation, May 2006, Göteborg University): “the largest collection of Benin items are found at the Ethnological

Museum in Berlin”. The author also found out that the “collections of Benin heads are strongly concentrated in museums of Western Europe and the United States” and that “The often-heard statement about the collection of Benin material being dispersed all over the world is thus a point of description that should be expressed with some moderation”. p.29
Listed here below are some of the museums where Benin bronzes are found and their numbers, as far as we can tell. This is not an attempt to be complete but to give the reader an idea about how widespread these looted art objects are. For a complete list, consult Philip J.C. Dark, An Introduction to Benin Art and Technology, 1973, Oxford University Press, London, pp. 78-81. Useful information can be found in Barbara Plankensteiner (Ed) Benin: Kings and Ritual – Court Arts from Nigeria, Snoeck Publishers, Ghent, 2007.

List of Museums and Number of Benin Bronzes in their Possession

Berlin – Ethnologisches Museum 580.
Chicago – Art Institute of Chicago 20, Field Museum 400.

Cologne – Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum 73.
Hamburg – Museum für Völkerkunde, Museum fur Kunst und Gewerbe 196.

Dresden – Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde 182.
Leipzig – Museum für Völkerkunde 87.
Leiden – Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde 98.
London – British Museum 700.
New York – Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art 163.
Oxford – Pitt-Rivers Museum/ Pitt-Rivers country residence, Rushmore in Farnham/Dorset 327.

Philadelphia – University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology 100.

Stuttgart – Linden Museum-Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde 80.

3. Kwame Opoku, “Nefertiti, Idia and Other African Icons in European Museums: The Thin Edge of European Morality”,

See the following websites: Afrikanet,

CultureGrrl, ,

Looting Matters,


Museum Security Network,

“Benin to Quai Branly: a Museum for the Arts of the Others or for the Stolen Arts of the Others?”“Benin to Berlin Ethnologisches Museum: Are Benin Bronzes made in Berlin?”“Does Collaboration between Nigerian Institutions and European/American Museums Bring us closer to Restitution of Nigeria’s Stolen/Looted Arts?”
4. Michel Leiris, Afrique Fantôme, see Annex I below.

5. James Cuno, Who Owns Antiquity? Princeton University Press, 2008; Whose Culture? Princeton University Press, 2009. Kwame Opoku, “Do Present-Day Egyptians Eat the same Food as Tuthankhamun? Review of James Cuno’s Who Owns Antiquity?”

Kwame Opoku, “Whose “Universal Museum”? Comments on James Cuno’s Whose Culture?”
Neil MacGregor, “The whole world in our hands”,

Kwame Opoku, “Benin to Chicago: in the “Universal Museum?”

6. Kwame Opoku, “Comments on Article by Bernard Mueller”, le Monde diplomatique
7. Peter Garlake, Early Art and Architecture of Africa, Oxford University Press, 2002, p.27.

8. Folarin Shyllon, “Museums and Universal Heritage: Right of Return and Right of Access”,

9 Folarin Syllon, “The Nigerian and African Experience on Looting and Trafficking in Cultural Objects”, in Barbara T. Hoffman (Ed.) Art and Cultural Heritage, Cambridge University Press, 2006, p.139.

10 .Michel Brent, “The illicit trade in African countries”, in Peter Schmidt and Roderick J. McIntosh (Eds.) Plundering Africa’s Past, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, James Currey, London, 1996, p.68,

11. Martin Bailey, “Don’t return artefacts to Nigeria “http://cache.zoominfo

12. Martin Bailey, op.cit. Martin Bailey has also reported that some Nigerian diplomats have been involved in the illicit traffick by using the diplomatic pouch “Yaro Gella, former director-general of Nigeria’s museums and monuments, claims that diplomats in Nigeria misuse their privileges to smuggle objects out of the country in the diplomatic pouch, particularly at the end of their term in the country. 6 Usually no action is taken against any of these diplomats.

13 Michel Brent, op. cit. p.72.
14. Dele Jegede, in Peter Schmidt and Roderick J. McIntosh (Eds.) Plundering Africa’s Past. 126.

See also Olalekan Ajao Akinade“Illicit Traffic in Cultural Property in Nigeria:

Aftermaths and Antidotes”, African Study Monographs, 20(2): 99-107, June 1999

15. Eric Huysecom, “Le pillage de l’histoire africaine », http://www.letemps. “Out of Africa, ou le pillage d´un patrimoine archéologique” K. Opoku, “Let Others Loot for You: Looting of African Artefacts for Western Museums”,

16. ICOM Press Release entitled NIGERIA’S OWNERSHIP OF NOK AND SOKOTO OBJECTS RECOGNISED see also, K. Opoku, “Does the Demand for the Restitution of Stolen African Cultural Objects Constitute an Obstacle to the Dissemination of Knowledge about African Arts?

17. James Cuno, Who owns antiquity? Museums and the battle over our ancient heritage, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2008.

See also, Kwame Opoku, “Do Present-Day Egyptians Eat the same Food as Tutthankhamun? Review of James Cuno’s Who owns Antiquity?”
18. James Cuno, interview of January 27, 2008 with Richard Lacayo, “A Talk With: James Cuno”

K. Opoku, “A Blank Cheque to Plunder Nok Terra cotta?”
19. Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums.

See also, Tom Flynn, “The Universal Museum- A valid model for the 21 Century?”

Mark O’Neil, “Enlightenment museums: universal or merely global?

20. Enid Schildkrout and Curtis A. Keim, The Scramble for Art in Central Africa, 1998, Cambridge University Press, p.1

21. Museum International, UNESCO, nos. 241 and 242, May 2009, Return of Cultural Objects – Athens Conference, p. 24.

22. Plankensteiner, ibid. p.17)
23. Great profit can be gained by reading Adam Hochschild’s account of the Belgian King Leopold’s oppressive and cruel rule in the Congo: King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, 1999.

Those with strong stomachs can also read the article on Leopold II in Wikipedia where it is stated that “A result of Leopold’s colonialism, children had their hands amputated when they didn’t meet demands for the Belgians” A photo of two children with amputated hands is shown there. http://en.wikipedia

It as been said of the Tervuren Museum in connection with its exhibition in 2005, The Memory of Congo: the Colonial Era and Congo: Nature and Culture: that:

“The museum has come to represent the worst abuses of Belgian colonialism in Africa, though in touring Brussels, visitors can see other vestiges of Congo’s plundering. Ivory, rubber, copper, diamonds and gold from the Central African nation, now called the Democratic Republic of Congo, funded the construction of the broad Parc du Cinquantenaire and the colossal neoclassic Palais de Justice. And everywhere in the Belgian capital there are statues of King Leopold II, whose stated purpose in Congo was to “bring civilization to the only part of our globe it hasn’t yet penetrated.” Along the way, the king, who died in 1909, reaped a profit from the colony of an estimated $1.1 billion.”

See also an article in the Museum Security Mailing list of December 2001, entitled

Samuel Sidibé, director of the Mali’s National Museum, has described Belgium as “a hub of illicit trade” in an excellent article, “When farmers become

curators”, Sidibé also gives an account of Mali’s efforts to combat the illicit traffic.

Some Swiss authors have also described Switzerland as “paradis des collectionneurs”, Didier Fontannaz, « Pillage et traffic de biens culturels:la Suisse paradis des collectionneurs? » Culture en jeu, no. 22. juin 2009, pp. 19-23. See also, Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini, The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities from Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Museums, New York, Public Affairs, 2006. The revelations of the Medici case led to several American museums having to return in 2007 to Italy cultural artefacts that had been illegally exported from Italy and ended in major American museums, such as J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and Princeton University’s Art Museum.

Kwame Opoku, “Returned Stolen/Looted Art Displayed by Italy”,

24. Schildkrout and Keim, op. cit. p.14.
25. Martin Bailey, “British Museum Sold Benin Bronzes” (19),

26. Kwame Opoku, “When Will Everybody Finally Accept thet the British Museum is a British Institution? Comments on a Lecture by Neil MacGregor”,

27. Folarin Shyllon, “The Recovery of Cultural Objects by African States through the UNESCO and UNIDROIT Conventions and the Role of Arbitration”,

28). African countries that are State Parties to the 1970 UNESCO Convention with their dates of ratification: Algeria (1974), Angola (1991), Burkina Faso(1987),Cameroon (1972), Central African Republic (1972), Chad (2008), Côte d’Ivoire (1990),Democratic Republic of Congo (1974), Egypt (1973), Gabon (2003), Guinea (1979), Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (1973), Madagascar (1989) Mali (1987), Mauritania (1977), Mauritius (1978),Morocco (2003), Niger (1972),Nigeria (1972).Rwanda (2001), Senegal (1984) Seychelles (2004), South Africa (2003), Tunisia (1975) United Republic of Tanzania (1977),Zambia (1985) and Zimbabwe (2006).

The African countries that are State Parties to the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention, with their dates of ratification are:

Burkina Faso (1995), Côte d’Ivoire (1995), Gabon (2004), Guinea (1995), Nigéria (2006), Senegal (1996) and Zâmbia (1996).

29. http://portal.unesco.orgl
30. Aida Edemariam “How G2’s Parthenon marbles poll went global”,

See for more information on the Elgin Marbles.

(Gallimard, Paris, 1951. Translations from the French are by K. Opoku)

28 August 1931After the journey. Dinner at Sido (128 km). Raid, as in the other village, of all that we can find by way of dance costumes, utensils, children’s toys, etc.” (Ibid. p.96)

6 September
“On the left, hanging from the ceiling in the midst of a crowd of calabashes, an indefinable packet covered with feathers of different birds and in which Griaule feels that there is a mask.

Irritated by the equivocations of the people our decision is quickly made: Griaule takes two flutes and slips them into his boots, we place the other things in place and we leave.” (Ibid. p.103)

“Griaule decrees then and through Mamadou Vad, informs the chief that since they are obviously mocking us, they must, as reprisals deliver to us a Kono (a religious object) in exchange for 10 francs, on pain of the police, said to be hiding in our vehicle, coming to take the chief and the important persons of the village to San where they will have to explain themselves to the Administration. What a terrible blackmail!

With a theatral gesture, I gave the chicken to the chief and as Makan has arrived with the canvas sheet, Griaule and I ordered the men to bring us the “Kono” (religious object). With everybody refusing, we went there ourselves, enveloped the holy object in the canvas sheet and went out like thieves whilst the panic-stricken chief fled and at some distance, drove his wife and children to their home with a baton. We crossed the village, which had become completely deserted, in a deadly silence, we reached our vehicles…

The ten francs are given to the chief and we leave in a hurry, in the midst of general astonishment and crowned with the aura of particularly powerful and daring demons or rascals.”(Ibid. pp.103-104)

7 September
“Before leaving Dyabougou, visit to the village and the taking of the second “Kono”, which Griaule had spotted by entering into the reserved hut surreptitiously? This time it is Lutten and myself who have the responsibility for the operation. My heart beats very strongly for since the scandal of yesterday, I realize with more clarity the enormity of what we are committing.” (Ibid. p.105)

“In the next village, I recognised a hut for a “Kono” with a door in ruins, I point it out to Griaule and the action is decided. As in the previous case, Mamadou Vad announces suddenly to the village chief whom we have brought before the hut in question, that the commander of the mission has given us the order to seize the Kono and that we are ready to pay an indemnity of 20 francs. This time, I alone take care of the operation and penetrate into the sacred small place, with the hunting knife of Lutten in my hand in order to cut the links to the mask. When I realise that two men – in no way at all menacing, have entered behind me, I realise with an astonishment which after a very short time turns into disgust, that one feels all the same very sure of one’s self when one is a white man and has a knife in his hand.” (Ibid. p.105)

“Towards the evening, the French teacher informed us that the mosque was the work of a European, the former administrator. In order to implement his plans, he destroyed the old mosque. The natives were so disgusted by the new building that they had to be punished with imprisonment before they would agree to sweep the building.” (Ibid. p.115)

“Departure to the Habés. From the first village visited problems. The Habés

are nice peoples who stand firm on their feet and do not seem to be ready to let others disturb them. Attempts to buy a few locks, even a purchase, they will protest and denounce a completed bargain; in a gesture of anger, Griaule breaks a “waamba” (a music instrument for the circumcised) which he had paid for and let it be said that he curses the village.” (Ibid. p.120)

12 November
“Yesterday, we were refused with shock several statuettes which were used to cause rainfall, as well as a statuette with raised arms, found in a sanctuary.

Taking away these objects would have been like taking away the life of the country, said a young man who, even though had been in the army, had remained faithful to his customs, almost crying at the thought of the disasters that our impious gesture would have provoked, and opposing our evil design with all his strength, had alerted the old men. Feeling like pirates: saying good-bye this morning to these affectionate old men, happy that we had spared them a disaster, we kept an eye on the huge green umbrella which was normally used to protect us but was today carefully bound. There was a strange bulge looking like the beak of a pelican: it contained the famous statuette with raised arms which I had myself stolen at the foot of the earth mound which served as its altar. I first hid it in my shirt… and then I put it in the umbrella… pretending to urinate in order to divert attention.

This evening, at Touyogou, where we are camping at a public place, my chest is full of earth: my shirt served again as a hiding place for a kind of double edged blade, as we left the cave of masks of this village.” (Ibid. p.156)

14 November
“In addition, the abductions continue and the information. Sanctuaries and holes in which one throws old masks are systematically explored.” (Ibid. p.157)

15 November
“Our friends, Apama and Ambara brought us secretly costumes of fibres for masques which we had asked them. They requested us, above all, to hide them well. Today, I am preparing with them cards on these objects. Apama and Ambara are very attentive to the slightest noise. A child who wanted to enter was scolded. No doubt; our methods have set an example and the two nice boys went to take the costumes of fibres in the cave of masks where they were hidden. The influence of the European…” (Ibid. pp.157-158)

18 November
“In another cave, we were authorised to take one of these objects (objects destined for causing lightning to fall on the heads of thieves). But when we put our hands on it, the people turned away from us, for fear of seeing us terribly punished for our sacrilege… To the right of the cave, in a small sanctuary, a beautiful wooden sculpture. We did not look at it too much in order not to draw too much attention; but it was agreed that this night, Schaeffner and I, we were going to seize it.” (Ibid. p159)

Conclusions of the Athens International Conference
on the Return of Cultural Objects to their Countries of Origin

Athens, 17-18 March 2008 *
Experts on the issue of the return of cultural objects to their countries of origin, who participated in the first International Conference held in Athens, on 17th and 18th March 2008, within the framework of the meeting co-organized by the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation and the Hellenic Ministry of Culture, in the presence of the Member States of the Committee have reached the following conclusions:

• It is important that UNESCO organise international conferences, so that experts intensify their study of the issue of the return of cultural property to its country of origin, in order to produce viable and realistic solutions;

• Cultural heritage constitutes an inalienable part of a people’s sense of self and of community, functioning as a link between the past, the present and the future;

• It is essential to sensitize the public about this issue and especially the younger generation. An information campaign may prove very effective toward that end;

• Certain categories of cultural property are irrevocably identified by reference to the cultural context in which they were created (unique and exceptional artworks and monuments, ritual objects, national symbols, ancestral remains,

dismembered pieces of outstanding works of art). It is their original context that gives them their authenticity and unique value;

• The role of the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation must be strengthened through the necessary means, resources and infrastructure. Effort should be made to encourage mediation either through the Committee or by other means of alternative dispute resolution;

• Requests and negotiations for the return of cultural goods can work as a vehicle for cooperation, collaboration, sharing, joint research and economic promotion;

• In recent years a clear tendency towards the return of cultural objects to their countries of origin has been developed on legal, social and ethical grounds. The return of cultural objects is directly linked to the rights of humanity (preservation of cultural identity and preservation of world heritage);

• Museums should abide by codes of ethics. On this basis, museums should be prepared to initiate dialogues for the return of important cultural property to its country or community of origin. This should be undertaken on ethical, scientific, and humanitarian principles. The cooperation, partnership, goodwill and mutual appreciation between the parties concerned could lead to joint research programs and exchange of technical expertise.

Source: Kwame Opoku, Dr.

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