Little by little Greece, Mexico, Peru, Afghanistan, Iraq, Cambodia, China, and Egypt, among other countries, are retrieving their artifacts, which they consider looted or stolen from the period of imperialism, colonialism and wars. Last November, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced it will return 19 small objects from King Tut’s tomb to Egypt as the museum’s research proved that they were stolen. These artifacts are only small pieces, such as fragments, bits of wood and textile, a vase, a very small sphinx. However, the fact that the Metropolitan Museum gave them back voluntarily, was a triumph for the Egyptian Antiquities Department.
The legal battle of art repartition is highly difficult to execute as it is unsure that under which laws – national or international – does it come? Art repartition is the return of art and cultural objects, usually referring to ancient or looted art, back to their country of origin or former owners (or their heirs). Cultural disputes about artifacts are mainly due to imperialism, colonialism and war and rightful ownership. The disputed objects vary generally from sculptures and paintings to monuments and human remains. Many Egyptians believe these objects are significant to their national heritage, and their presence in European museums is a monument to the days of colonialist looting and exploitation.
In Egypt, some are fighting another war – the legal battle of art repartition to be settled once and for all. Yet it is a vast battle, and its main actor is Dr. Zahi Hawass, who was appointed as the Minister of Antiquities on February 1, 2011. The army and the ordinary people are now protecting the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, and all the major sites of Egypt (Luxor, Aswan, Saqqara, and the pyramids of Giza) to ensure that the current civil unrest does not cause the destruction of these most famous antiquities.
A couple a months ago, Dr Hawass, on behalf of his country, once again called for the restitution of the Rosetta Stone which is on display at the British Museum. At the end of January 2011, Egypt also officially requested the return of the 3,300-year-old bust of Queen Nefertiti that has been in Berlin’s Neues Museum for decades. Germany declined all requests, declaring the bust was in the country lawfully and is too delicate to travel and be moved.
One of the latest scandals, also denounced by Prof. Hawass, is the Obelisk in Central Park left in decrepitude. Since 1880, a beautiful obelisk commemorating King Thutmose III, has stood in Central Park in New York City. This obelisk is one of a pair – the other one currently stands in Westminster in London. If New York City doesn’t take care of it in a better way, Egypt wants it back.
Early February in the Middle East, antiquities are caught up in another budding political controversy. Iran is threatening to sever cultural ties with France in a dispute with the Musée du Louvre. The head of Iran’s Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization, Hamid Baghai, insists that the Louvre promised an exhibition of Persian artifacts in Teheran. In return for Iran’s loan of Safavid-era objects for a show titled ‘The Song of the World’ at the Louvre in 2007-08, the French did agree, but were not confirming any dates for the anticipated exposition. This has led to a conflict which may destroy cultural relations between the two countries.
A few weeks ago, and according to reports in the Austrian press, Austria seemed finally willing to return the Montezuma Crown which Mexico has been claiming for decades without avail. It appears the return will be a temporary loan in exchange for a loan of a gilded carriage used by Emperor Maximilian I in the 19th century that is now in the National Museum of Mexico.
While some European countries believe they are the guardians of true history and cultural heritages, this supra-colonialist attitude articulates that the countries from which the art originates do not have the ability to maintain and showcase it in a manner deemed fit. As Europe went through renaissance, this entitles them to believe they are the only gate keepers of old and new artifacts. However, many countries are continuing to claim back their arts which were removed with fraudulent documents or purely stolen or smuggled.
Another scandal is supported by the well known fashion brand Prada who had the audacity to commission Art counterfeit. On December 17, 2010, Milan court has closed an exhibition of the Prada Foundation and seized nine pieces copied ‘without authorization’ of a Giacometti sculpture by New Yorker John Baldessari. On January 18, Judge Marina Tavassi refused to lift the seizure, setting a new hearing for March 22. The court confiscated the catalogues and deleted images from the site although this does not prevent them from circulating it.
Without doubt, such scandals and claims for art, antiquities and artifacts are far from over. Beyond the question of ownership, for many countries from which these items originate, it is a matter of national pride; a remembrance to power, sovereignty and thought which developed across numerous centuries, and which brought society to where it is today. The influence these objects have had on European and Western modern artistic culture are not negligible, leading to these long and often unresolved disputes. However all art, regardless of its origin and cultural attachments should be conserved, and used to remind us as a society, of its power for influence and change…
© Alexandra Orloff