YES FROM EXPERTS IN THE FIELD
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WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Should art and artifacts be
returned to the country of
Zoë Kontes is an
and chair of the
Classics at Kenyon
College in Gambier,
Ohio. You can ;nd
her podcast on the
trade at lootedpod
James O. Young
is a professor of
philosophy at the
University of Victoria, British Columbia, and author of
Cultural Appropriation and the Arts
2010; not available
THE SUGGESTION THAT all artworks ought to be returned to their country
of origin is highly implausible.
One would not seriously maintain that legally exported works ought to be
returned. If an 18th-century Englishman legally bought a painting from an
Italian artist, it is difficult to imagine the grounds on which the people of Italy
could now demand that the painting be repatriated.
Presumably the claim is only that wrongfully acquired works ought to be
returned, but even the weaker thesis is difficult to defend. Tracing how a work
of art was obtained can be difficult, if not impossible. It is often difficult to
determine which culture has a claim on some work. Would we return to Turkey
or Greece a work produced by Greeks living in what is now Turkey? Similarly,
it may be difficult to determine which indigenous culture has the best claim on
something found in North America.
Often works cannot be returned to a country of origin without putting
them at risk. Some artifacts have disappeared on the black market after repatriation. Other artifacts would be put at risk of damage, destruction or looting.
A world in which all Rembrandts are in the Netherlands, every Wu school
landscape is in China and every Haida carving is in Haida Gwaii would be a
culturally impoverished world. A world in which some of the great achievements of a culture are housed abroad is a world in which people have enhanced
opportunities to appreciate the arts of other nations. New ideas in the arts
result from the dissemination of a culture’s artifacts: Think of the influence
of West African art on Picasso.
Some artifacts are best conceived of as the patrimony of all humankind.
Some works of art originated in cultures or nations that no longer exist but
have become iconic for a variety of subsequent cultures. Other artworks are
products of cultural cross-fertilization. No one culture owns such works, and
talk of returning them to a culture of origin is misguided. C
IF AN ARTIFACT has been illegally removed from its country of origin, then,
in accordance with existing laws and international agreements, it should
In current archaeological practice, all excavated items remain in the country where they are found. It is the looted objects that end up on the market and
eventually in private collections and museums.
When an artifact is looted—removed from its original context without
careful scientific excavation—we lose precious information. What other
objects accompanied the artifact? Who were the people that made and used
it? What did they value? What kind of technology did they use? How were their
lives like or unlike ours? Looting destroys this chain of information.
And looting is happening every day, all over the world. Recent discoveries
of Mediterranean antiquities dealers’ archives cataloging thousands of looted
objects hint at the massive scale of this problem, in this region alone.
Can we stop the looting? We must try. Repatriation is an important part
of this fight. If we can lessen the demand for stolen antiquities, we can lessen
the looting. Museums and collectors should not purchase artifacts that do not
have a known collecting history.
And if a collection turns out to contain objects that can be proved to legally
belong to another nation—such as the highly publicized case of the Euphronios
krater, a sixth century B.C. wine-mixing vessel looted from an Etruscan tomb
in Italy and held for more than 30 years in New York—it should be returned.
Similarly, as is the case with the Parthenon Marbles, if the items could be
reunited with the structure and other artifacts that made up their original
context and thereby be further understood, they should be returned.
International collaboration, through loans and special exhibits, allows
artifacts to be seen, studied and appreciated all over the world, without
destroying our common human history. C
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