While some repatriation cases have stemmed from protracted legal battles, the settlement between Yale University and the government of Peru was hailed as a triumph of diplomacy and cross-cultural exchange. After years of often acrimonious talks, in 2010 Yale agreed to return the artifacts, and the university and Alan García, then the president of Peru, pledged to help create a joint study and research center with the Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad del Cusco.
But has the Euphronios Krater really come home? This is the challenging question posed by James Cuno’s latest book. The president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago, Cuno takes a provocative approach to the age-old controversy over the ownership and display of cultural artifacts. In his view, the claims of countries like Italy to antiquities taken from their soil are unwarranted. The modern nation-state of Italy, after all, is less than 200 years old. What particular right does Italy have to a vase that predates it by over two millennia? Yes, the Euphronios Krater was probably stolen, but once the theft had occurred, and valuable information about the work’s archaeological context had already been lost, should the vase have been destroyed or hidden in a private collection rather than displayed in a museum—one of the few places where it might introduce citizens to an element of their collective past?
The 1978 UNESCO Convention strengthened existing provisions; the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of illicit Appropriation was established. It consists of 22 members elected by the General Conference of UNESCO to facilitate bilateral negotiations for the restitution of "any cultural property which has a fundamental significance from the point of view of the spiritual values and cultural heritage of the people of a Member State or Associate Member of UNESCO and which has been lost as a result of colonial or foreign occupation or as a result of illicit appropriation". It was also created to "encourage the necessary research and studies for the establishment of coherent programmes for the constitution of representative collections in countries whose cultural heritage has been dispersed".
Some argue that in colonized states, nationalist archaeology was used to resist colonialism and racism under the guise of evolution. While it is true that both colonialist and nationalist discourse use the artifact to form mechanisms to sustain their contending political agendas, there is a danger in viewing them interchangeably since the latter was a reaction and form of resistance to the former. On the other hand, it is important to realize that in the process of emulating the mechanisms of colonial discourse, the nationalist discourse produced new forms of power. In the case of the Egyptian nationalist movement, the new form of power and meaning that surrounded the artifact furthered the Egyptian independence cause but continued to oppress the rural Egyptian population.
A well-known recent case of wartime looting was the plundering of ancient artifacts from the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad at the outbreak of the war in 2003. Although this was not a case in which the victors plundered art from their defeated enemy, it was result of the unstable and chaotic conditions of war that allowed looting to happen and which some would argue was the fault of the invading US forces.