Art was repatriated for the first time in modern history when Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington overturned art plundered by Napoleon to Italy after his and Marshal Blücher's armies defeated the French at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. This decision contrasted sharply to a long-held tradition to the effect that "to the victors go the spoils." This is remarkable considering that in the battle of Waterloo alone, the financial and human costs were colossal; the decision to not only refrain from plundering France but to repatriate France's prior seizures from the Netherlands, Italy, Prussia, and Spain, was extraordinary. Moreover, the British paid for the restitution of the papal collection to Rome because the Pope could not finance the shipping himself. When British troops began packing up looted art from the Louvre, there was a public outcry in France. Crowds reportedly tried to prevent the taking of the Horses of Saint Mark and there were throngs of weeping ladies outside the Louvre Museum. Despite the unprecedented nature of this repatriation effort, there are recent estimations that only about 55 percent of what was taken was actually repatriated: the Louvre Director at the time, Vivant Denon, had sent out many important works to other parts of France before the British could take them. Wellington viewed himself as representing all of Europe's nations and he believed that the moral decision would be to restore the art in its apparently proper context. In a letter to Lord Castlereagh he wrote:
In order to be legally classified as an indigenous person in the United States and Canada, an individual must be officially listed as belonging to a specific tribe or band. This issue of identity is obviously a sensitive one, and serves as a reminder of the continuing impact of colonial policy. Many contemporary artists, including James Luna (Pooyukitchum/Luiseño) and Jaune Quick-to-See-Smith (from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Indian Nation), address the problem of who gets to decide who or what an Indian is in their work.
In 2004 the US passed the Bill HR1047 for the Emergency Protection for Iraq Cultural Antiquities Act, which allows the President authority to impose emergency import restrictions by Section 204 of the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CCIPA). In 2003, Britain and Switzerland put into effect statutory prohibitions against illegally exported Iraqi artifacts. In the UK, the Dealing in Cultural Objects Bill was established in 2003 that prohibited the handling of illegal cultural objects.
Méndez de Vigo has instructed the Department of Culture of the Catalan government, now under his leadership, to obey a provisional judicial order that dictates the return of the objects to their former location in Aragon, Catalonia’s neighboring region. Even though this judicial order could still be disputed, the minister demands its immediate implementation.
Most Western museums now acknowledge a strong ethical case for returning objects, especially if they have been found to have left their countries of origin under dubious circumstances, as in the case of the goddess of Morgantina. The Getty, which had bought the statue in 1988 for $18 million, returned it to Italy in 2011 after Italian prosecutors found that it had been looted, illegally exported and sold by dealers who very likely dissembled about its provenance.
Returned to Peru in 2012, the objects — which include ceramics, tools, jewelry and human and animal bones — provide a remarkable account of the city, which was abandoned after the Spanish conquest of Peru in the 16th century. Many are now on view at a museum in Cuzco, the nearest city to Machu Picchu. The installation is still largely that from a 2003 traveling exhibition organized by the Peabody Museum, which celebrates the triumphs of Bingham, but that emphasis is likely to change as Peruvian museum authorities take command.
In rare cases, a repatriation is arranged so that a collector knowingly buys works identified as stolen to protect them from being further damaged or broken up. That happened in 1985, when the art collector Dominique de Menil bought some 13th-century Byzantine frescoes from a Turkish art dealer after the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus and government officials there identified them as having been stolen.
The Palladion was the earliest and perhaps the most important stolen statue in western literature. The small carved wooden statue of an armed Athena served as Troy's protective talisman, which is said to have been stolen by two Greeks who secretly smuggled the statue out of the Temple of Athena. It was widely believed in antiquity that the conquest of Troy was only possible because the city had lost its protective talisman. This myth illustrates the sacramental significance of statuary in Ancient Greece as divine manifestations of the gods that symbolized power and were often believed to possess supernatural abilities. The sacred nature of the statues is further illustrated in the supposed suffering of the victorious Greeks afterward, including Odysseus, who was the mastermind behind the robbery.