Drawing on careful legal research, the book’s central chapters argue that the laws governing the movement of antiquities today are political constructs heavily influenced by nation-states. Over the past three and a half decades, the conventions of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) have increasingly favored the narrow interests of countries like Greece, China, Turkey, and Egypt that lay claim to particular artifacts. They make these claims not out of concern for the welfare of the works themselves, but to assert their authority over, and to profit from, riches originating in their territories. In turn, they incorporate these artifacts into national “histories” that, not coincidentally, exclude ethnic minorities and shore up the power of ruling parties.
Both parties have put forward strong arguments in favor and against the return of the artefacts, but it is not my purpose to judge their validity in any detail here. The essential summary is that the works of art were sold or donated to the Museum of Lleida by nuns from Sixena during the last years of General Franco’s dictatorship. The formality of these purchases and donations is, however, questioned by the Aragon authorities. It may not be a clear-cut case, but it is one that deserves a settlement in a context of institutional normality, in which the Catalan government can defend its own interests.
The restoration of monuments was often made in colonial states to make natives feel as if in their current state, they were no longer capable of greatness. Furthermore, sometimes colonial rulers argued that the ancestors of the colonized people did not make the artifacts. Some scholars also argue that European colonialists used monumental archaeology and tourism to appear as the guardian of the colonized, reinforcing unconscious and undetectable ownership. Colonial rulers used peoples, religions, languages, artifacts, and monuments as source for reinforcing European nationalism, which was adopted and easily inherited from the colonial states.
The great public interest in art repatriation helped fuel the expansion of public museums in Europe and launched museum-funded archaeological explorations. The concept of art and cultural repatriation gained momentum through the latter decades of the twentieth century and began to show fruition by the end of the century when key works were ceded back to claimants.
Luna’s Artifact Piece (1987) and Take a Picture with a Real Indian (1993) both confront issues of identity and stereotypes of Native peoples. In Artifact Piece, Luna placed himself into a glass vitrine (like the ones we often see in museums) as if he were a static artifact, a relic of the past, accompanied by personal items like pictures of his family. In Take a Picture with a Real Indian, Luna asks his audience to come take a picture with him. He changes clothes three times. He wears a loincloth, then a loincloth with a feather and a bone breastplate, and then what we might call “street clothes.” Most people choose to take a picture with him in the former two, and so Luna draws attention to the problematic idea that somehow he is less authentically Native when dressed in jeans and a t-shirt.
One of the most infamous cases of esurient art plundering in wartime was the Nazi appropriation of art from both public and private holdings throughout Europe and Russia. The looting began before World War II with illegal seizures as part of a systematic persecution of Jews, which was included as a part of Nazi crimes during the Nuremberg Trials. During World War II, Germany plundered 427 museums in the Soviet Union and ravaged or destroyed 1,670 Russian Orthodox churches, 237 Catholic churches and 532 synagogues.