Empty "international" museums' trophy cases of their looted treasures and return stolen property to the countries of origin and the rightful heirs of those wrongfully dispossessed.

Author:Reppas, Michael J., II

The discovery of the earliest civilizations [in the 19th Century] was a glorious adventure story.... Kings visited digs in Greece and Egypt, banner headlines announced the latest finds, and thousands flocked to see exotic artifacts from distant millennia in London, Berlin, and Paris. These were the pioneer days of archaeology, when excavators ... used battering rams, brute force, and hundreds of workmen in a frenzied search for ancient cities and spectacular artifacts. From these excavations was born the science of archaeology. They also spawned a terrible legacy--concerted efforts to loot and rob the past. (1)


The ethical questions surrounding the acquisition and retention of looted property by museums and art dealers were once a subject reserved for mock-trial competitions in undergraduate humanities and pre-law classes. Recently, however, the debate has moved from the classroom to the courtroom, and the trend seems irreversible. Fueled by aggressive claims from source countries, which are frustrated by stalemate diplomacy that has failed to repatriate their ancient treasures, nation-states are now forcing resolution by litigating their disputes. Such course is also being pursued by the heirs of individuals who were wrongfully dispossessed; who have tried in vain to have the property voluntarily returned by the museums and are now also turning to the Courts for redress. The combination of these actions, and the results thereof, will not only decide the fate of the individual treasures in dispute, but will also decide the fate of entire museum collections and, indeed, the very future of the international museum as an institution.

The dawn of the 21st Century has brought a fresh breeze to the stale and stagnant course of requests for looted property to be voluntarily returned and the invariable refusal by the international museums. The long held assumptions of nation-states and individuals that they are unable to challenge the museum's ownership of these treasures, has changed to a more confident and confrontational stance whereupon they now believe they can legally compel the museums to return their looted treasures. Where the 20th Century embodied a sense of futility, frustration, and incurable loss of property, the 21st Century seems to be one that will empower nation-states and individuals to correct the crimes of the past and to reclaim their looted treasures.

One can observe the stark changes in world opinion by analyzing numerous recent events on this subject. Begin with a consideration of the following general questions: "who can own the past" (2); "who has a right to keep the spoils of war"; and "can anyone own someone else's history?" Heretofore, these questions were predominantly addressed only by scholars and academics; now, however, variations thereof are immensely popular today in the general press. A plethora of authors, including this one, (3) have analyzed the different takings and demanded the return of looted items based upon historical, moral, ethical, political and/or legal grounds. Scores of books and newspaper articles have flooded the market to address contemporary and historic lootings: the Baghdad Museum; the Kennewick Man; the Sphinx's Beard; the Rosetta Stone; the Parthenon Marbles; and the Nazi Holocaust thefts have captured, and recaptured, our attention. Today's society sees the debate in simple terms of right and wrong, black and white. It is axiomatic that Holocaust survivors and/or their heirs must have their Nazi looted property returned to them. It is axiomatic that the Sphinx Beard and Rosetta Stone belong in Egypt; that the Parthenon Marbles belong in Greece, and on, and on. That ancient treasures have been looted from Nation States as imperial spoils of war and carted thousands of miles away to now be owned by and displayed in the trophy boxes of foreign "international" museums--is simply wrong. That Nazi-looted art from Holocaust victims is owned by and displayed in international museums--is simply wrong. Today's society is intolerant of these lootings and demands that the international museums return them because they have no moral right to own and display such property. That our society is taking this approach and rebelling against the status-quo of de facto museum ownership of these looted items, is an indication that a swing in the pendulum, favoring the return of these treasures has occurred. That national and international laws protecting nations and individuals from the pillage of their treasures, and formalize and codify contemporary views on the subject, is more evidence: governmental recognition of the will of the people. The peremptory norm is, undeniably, that looted art and artifacts must be returned to their country of origin and/or to the individuals wrongfully dispossessed thereof. And where voluntary return is refused, we are witnessing the next step in process: litigation. (4)

The value of these looted items, beyond their economic worth, is tremendous for both individuals and Nation States. For individuals and/or the heirs of those whose property was stolen, such as those victims of the Holocaust, the return of the looted property is, in part, vindication for the crimes against them and/or their family; it is also a punishment against those who collaborated with and/or profited from the Nazi crimes against humanity. Returning such looted property is essential for providing some closure to the historic crime. Although it cannot erase the crime from their memories, it can, at least, ease the trauma associated with their inability to fully punish the wrongdoers, as well as provide some restitution for the loss.

To a Nation State, the significance of treasures that represent their cultural property, beyond their economic value, are understood when the items themselves embody the personal identity of a people or a nation. In fact, "[c]ultural property is so central to [the] personal identity [of its people] that the International Conference on Cultural Property Rights of the United Nations termed it 'ethnocide' to withhold or destroy cultural property." (5) An American reader can understand this principle by using any one of our nationally prized possessions, such as the Statue of Liberty, the Lincoln Memorial, or the White House as an example of what constitutes Cultural Property. So too can a British reader understand the emotional tie to the cultural property if the looted item was Nelson's Column or Stonehenge. Virtually every nation has culturally significant property that embodies the historic identity of its people. The immorality and injustice of such items being "owned" and displayed in trophy boxes by a conquering nation is a source of pain, embarrassment, and a sign of weakness. In today's society, possession of one's own patrimony is a mark of equality amongst nations. (6) It is a sign that the country of origin and its people are no longer victims of the crime, the looting, that took place when the rich and powerful pilfered their lands. Restitution, therefore, is a psychological victory for a country of origin and its people, and an indication to them, and the world, that they have elevated themselves in the international arena and no longer are too poor and/or too powerless to protect themselves or their cultural treasures.

The major museums of the world that "own" and display looted Holocaust art and/or the spoils of war or trophies of colonialism that were looted from Greece, Turkey, Egypt, China, Africa and other nations in the early 19th century by the British, French and German (7) empires are no longer part of an academic debate. Instead, they are finding themselves as defendants in high powered and high staked lawsuits where their entire collections are on the line.

The classic debate where ethical obligations of museums and art dealers were pitted against the rights of the source country from whom the property had been taken, has now evolved into a full-fledged war--a war being fought by governments, individuals, museums, and art dealers who were, heretofore, generally categorized as "cultural nationalists" or "cultural internationalists." The former espousing on the rights of indigenous peoples to claim their treasures from the "looters" of their past; the latter on theories of universality, and the common heritage of mankind as justification for their continued display and ownership of the treasures. The war is waged everyday in civil and criminal courts throughout the world and in the court of world opinion. Though relatively silent for decades, recent events have brought the classic debate to the forefront of the international community and, in so doing, have forced the international museums to face a singular question: should museums be emptied of all their looted treasures?

The answer is not simple, but neither is it one that can be ignored by the museums any longer. Repatriating looted national cultural treasures to their countries of origin would, on one hand, acknowledge the rights of the cultural nationalists and, both practically and morally, reinvest the descendents of the creations with their birth rite. Returning looted art to individuals and/or their heirs would also satisfy society's desire to protect victims and punish profiteers for the wrongful takings. On the other hand, repatriating all items would not only take the works away from scholarly study abroad, international public attention, and praise they receive in the foreign institutions, but it would also, in many instances, put the actual property at physical risk, as many individuals and countries lack the economic resources necessary to protect and display them. (8) In sum, these are questions requiring careful consideration of not just the circumstances surrounding the original taking of the treasures and the laws related thereto, but also one of economics and preservation.

This article seeks to analyze the competing interests...

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