Returning artworks means confronting an ugly history


France recently reignited international debate on what to do with artwork in Western museums stolen from former colonies and war-torn states. France has agreed to return 26 works plundered from Benin in West Africa. The move followed a report commissioned by President Emmanuel Macron recommending the wholesale return of cultural artifacts looted during the colonial era.

Africa has been particularly hard-hit, with about 90 percent of its most-cherished antiquities now believed to be in Europe. The report identified approximately 46,000 objects at the Musee du quai Branly alone that would qualify for repatriation. Repatriating 26 items is just a start.

Britain has offered to loan back some of its looted artifacts, which is a ludicrous notion. Possessors of stolen property should not get to set the terms for their return. At some point, atonement and transparency must come into play.

The United States has returned thousands of artifacts since 2007.

But the process is rarely easy for the victimized countries.

A three-year legal battle involving the sacred funerary mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer at the St. Louis Art Museum ended in the museum’s favor in 2014. The Department of Justice had argued that the mask was illegally taken from Egypt before it was eventually purchased by the museum. The museum sued the U.S. government when asked to return the mask to Egypt.

The Justice Department couldn’t prove exactly when and how the mask was stolen, but the museum should have acknowledged that there was a credible claim against its ownership.

Nowhere in the museum’s display of this treasure does it suggest it has a contested provenance. The museum should follow the example set by France and publicly acknowledge in its display that the mask’s provenance has been legally challenged.

Similar challenges come up regularly whenever artwork and other cherished possessions plundered from Jews under Hitler’s Third Reich surface elsewhere in the world. Just because the buyer paid good money for the objects doesn’t erase the original crime underlying prior transactions.

This isn’t just an ethical question. Transparency also is in the long-term interests of cultural institutions in maintaining public trust.


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