In recent years, museums across the United States and Europe have begun returning objects to their countries of origin. Each case tells its own story. While much attention has focused on the act of repatriation, The New York Times looked at what happened to several objects after they went back. Some works, returned with great fanfare, have taken on greater meaning back on view in the countries or cultures that produced them. Other times, after the triumphalism fades, they fall victim to benign neglect, or are not always easy to reach.
“I think the Yale case is a good one as a model in some ways because it was resolved diplomatically; it wasn’t resolved through legal decisions,” said Richard Burger, chairman of the Council of Archaeological Studies at Yale and a former curator at the Peabody Museum, who was part of the talks. A committee of Yale scholars and officials from Peru’s Culture Ministry oversee the museum.
A precedent for art repatriation was set in Roman antiquity when Cicero prosecuted Verres, a senate member and illegal appropriator of art. Cicero's speech influenced Enlightenment European thought and had an indirect impact on the modern debate about art repatriation. Cicero's argument uses military episodes of plunder as "case law" and expresses certain standards when it comes to appropriating cultural property of another people. Cicero makes a distinction between public and private uses of art and what is appropriate for each and he also asserts that the primary purpose of art is religious expression and veneration. He also sets standards for the responsibilities of imperial administration abroad to the code of ethics surrounding the collection of art from defeated Greece and Rome in wartime. Later, both Napoleon and Lord Elgin would be likened to Verres in condemnations of their plundering of art.
Opposed to the nationalist, proprietary, and even tribal concerns of such regimes, Cuno believes, are the benevolent interests of public museums. They hover above the sectarian conflicts gripping much of the world, drawing human beings together by demonstrating the interrelatedness of all civilizations. Cuno exalts “the museum of international, indeed universal aspirations, and not of nationalist limitations, curious and respectful of the world’s artistic and cultural legacy as common to us all”—the ideal repository, in his view, for artifacts that illuminate this legacy. He advocates a return to the system of partage, whereby foreign-led excavation teams provide archaeological expertise to source countries in return for a share of the finds, to be exhibited in public galleries elsewhere. Further, he urges compromises that would allow museums to display unprovenanced antiquities—particularly those acquired before the stricter trafficking laws of recent decades—reminding his readers of the aesthetic and educational rewards to be reaped by their presence in major collections.
The word Indian is considered offensive to many peoples. The term derives from the Indies, and was coined after Christopher Columbus bumped into the Caribbean islands in 1492, believing, mistakenly, that he had found India. Other terms are equally problematic or generic. You might encounter many different terms to describe the peoples in North America, such as Native American, American Indian, Amerindian, Aboriginal, Native, Indigenous, First Nations, and First Peoples.
Napoleon continued his art conquests in 1798 when he invaded Egypt in an attempt to safeguard French trade interests and to undermine Britain's access to India via Egypt. His expedition in Egypt is noted for the 167 "savants" he took with him including scientists and other specialists equipped with tools for recording, surveying and documenting ancient and modern Egypt and its natural history. Among other things, the expedition discoveries included the Rosetta Stone and the Valley of the Kings near Thebes. The French military campaign was short-lived and unsuccessful and the majority of the collected artifacts (including the Rosetta Stone) were seized by British troops, ending up in the British Museum. Nonetheless, the information gathered by the French expedition was soon after published in the several volumes of Description de l'Égypte, which included 837 copperplate engravings and over 3,000 drawings. In contrast to the disapproving public reaction to the looting of Italian works of art, the appropriation of Egyptian art saw widespread interest and fascination throughout Europe, inciting a phenomenon which came to be called "Egyptomania".
Mrs. de Menil pledged to buy them — and return them to Cyprus in 20 years. The Menil Collection in Houston paid for the frescoes’ restoration, which took years. It built a bespoke minimalist space for them next to its Rothko Chapel and put them on display there in 1998. The museum had been hoping that Cyprus would extend the agreement and allow them to keep the works on view.
Impressive in its grasp of historical and political issues, ranging across anthropology, archaeology, and law, Cuno’s book evinces careful thought about the implications of antiquities trafficking across many eras. Yet it also raises complicated questions that will surely provoke further debate within the art community. Most important, the dichotomy between tribal nation-states and cosmopolitan museums cannot be so simple as Cuno pretends. The encyclopedic museum is, after all, a product, even an instrument, of modern national and imperial interests. The Louvre was populated by Napoleon’s rapacious plunder, then used as a political tool to demonstrate France’s dominance in the theater of Europe. And who can walk the halls of the British Museum without thinking of the empire on which the sun never set? A related question that could be posed by nation-states demanding restitution of valuable artifacts is: If encyclopedic museums are truly institutions of “international, indeed universal aspirations,” then why are they located primarily in powerful First World countries? Cuno advocates their extension to nations all over the globe, but the fact is that no such collection will be coming to the Darfur region anytime soon. For the foreseeable future, the encyclopedic museum and policies that promote it will chiefly serve rich Westerners.
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.