Why Stolen Art Might Be Hiding in Plain Sight

Why Stolen Art Might Be Hiding in Plain Sight

December 1928: Decorators prepare an exhibition of antiquities at the Egyptian Galleries in the British Museum.

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Why you should care

Because recovering stolen art isn’t as simple as you think.

With a mighty gate tiled with animal murals towering behind him, a young man knelt quietly and unfolded a handwritten sign.

He sat in one of the biggest rooms in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum. Just by kneeling, he got a few of the quiet, disapproving glances you get when you cough too loudly in an echoing space. But when museum-goers looked closer at Zeidoun Alkinani’s sign, they had something else entirely to think about besides etiquette.

THIS BELONGS TO IRAQ, the sign read simply.

Like many Iraqis, Alkinani was calling for a return of the Babylonian Ishtar Gate. The image of him protesting at the Pergamon went viral — and triggered conversations about famous museums’ darkest secrets. Many museums in the West got their biggest attractions by colonial force, and now their home countries want them back. Sometimes, museums send items back unprompted. But when they don’t, their home countries are often willing to fight for these lost artifacts — even if it means bringing lawsuits against superpowers.

The UN has an intergovernmental committee to handle these tense, historically charged lawsuits. Every year, they receive claims from countries demanding the return of treasures ranging from the Koh-i-noor diamond to the Rosetta Stone. But over the past 40 years, there have been only

six successful restitutions

of priceless stolen art. That’s according to data from the committee. Why so few? The world’s not lacking for stolen-art controversies. Many governments have long-standing feuds, often against former colonial powers. London’s British Museum is a particular culprit, with 16 countries recently banding together to petition the museum for artifacts spanning centuries and diverse cultures.

The details of the most recent case are telling. In 1987, Turkey asked Germany — specifically, the Pergamon Museum — to return the Boğazköy Sphinx, a small stone sculpture that’d been brought to Berlin during World War I. By 2011, the UN ruled that the Sphinx had to go back to Turkey. Most of the legal details had to do with boundaries — while the Sphinx had been abroad, the Ottoman Empire became Turkey and Germany went through a host of transformations.

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For more than 20 years, Greek officials have demanded that the British Museum return the Elgin Marbles collection, a request repeatedly denied. That hasn’t stopped Athens from building a 130-million-euro facility to house the disputed treasures.

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The secret ingredient to success in this internationally sanctioned restitution case? The UN committee didn’t have to confront the painful dynamics between a colonizer and colony, which would have in turn opened the floodgates for a host of unprecedented lawsuits. That, and restitution isn’t as easy as Monuments Men cracked it up to be. One of the biggest arguments against restitution is actually a centuries-old case. In the early 1800s, Britain’s Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin, scoured Greece’s most precious archaeological site — the Parthenon — for sculptures and artifacts. This included a stunning, priceless series of marble carvings now known as the Elgin Marbles.

Thieves and high-profile bidders including Napoleon have tried to get their hands on the Elgin Marbles. But no one’s tried quite so hard as the Greek government, which has been petitioning the U.K. for decades to return their treasures. For Chris de L’isle, a tutor in ancient history at the University of Oxford, the Marbles’ continued existence in Britain is deeply political — and makes teaching ancient history in the present day much harder.

“I emphasize to my students the importance of seeing artifacts in their original context,” he explains. “But the Marbles are frozen in the context of other works that happen to have ended up in the British Museum.” In other words, Britain’s former status as an imperial superpower overshadows the original significance of the Parthenon’s most precious treasures.

But there are arguments, some compelling, against returning the Marbles, says Alice Parkin, a U.K.-based museum worker and classical archaeologist. One is that 5th-century B.C.E. Athens bears about as much resemblance to present-day Athens as it does London — so why bother relocating the sculptures? More immediately, Parkin says, “There’s a question of whether Athens, with recent museum break-ins and political disturbances, would be a safe place to house them and visit them.”

With ISIS destroying treasures in Iraq and Syria, it seems to be a legitimate argument. But with many of today’s world conflicts sparked by colonialism, restoring lost artifacts can also be a powerful way of making amends — and it’s possible we need a new system to do so.

The UN Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to Its Countries of Origin or Its Restitution in Case of Illicit Appropriation, the Pergamon and British Museums, and the British and Greek governments did not respond to OZY’s requests for comment.

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