Empty "International" Museums' Trophy Cases of Their Looted Treasures and Return Stolen Property to the Countries of Origin and the Rightful Heirs of Those Wrongfully Dispossessed

By Reppas, Michael J., II | Denver Journal of International Law and Policy, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Empty "International" Museums' Trophy Cases of Their Looted Treasures and Return Stolen Property to the Countries of Origin and the Rightful Heirs of Those Wrongfully Dispossessed


Reppas, Michael J., II, Denver Journal of International Law and Policy


The discovery of the earliest civilizations [in the 19th Century] was a glorious adventure story.... Kings visited digs in Greece and Egypt, banner headlines announced the latest finds, and thousands flocked to see exotic artifacts from distant millennia in London, Berlin, and Paris. These were the pioneer days of archaeology, when excavators ... used battering rams, brute force, and hundreds of workmen in a frenzied search for ancient cities and spectacular artifacts. From these excavations was born the science of archaeology. They also spawned a terrible legacy--concerted efforts to loot and rob the past. (1)

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The ethical questions surrounding the acquisition and retention of looted property by museums and art dealers were once a subject reserved for mock-trial competitions in undergraduate humanities and pre-law classes. Recently, however, the debate has moved from the classroom to the courtroom, and the trend seems irreversible. Fueled by aggressive claims from source countries, which are frustrated by stalemate diplomacy that has failed to repatriate their ancient treasures, nation-states are now forcing resolution by litigating their disputes. Such course is also being pursued by the heirs of individuals who were wrongfully dispossessed; who have tried in vain to have the property voluntarily returned by the museums and are now also turning to the Courts for redress. The combination of these actions, and the results thereof, will not only decide the fate of the individual treasures in dispute, but will also decide the fate of entire museum collections and, indeed, the very future of the international museum as an institution.

The dawn of the 21st Century has brought a fresh breeze to the stale and stagnant course of requests for looted property to be voluntarily returned and the invariable refusal by the international museums. The long held assumptions of nation-states and individuals that they are unable to challenge the museum's ownership of these treasures, has changed to a more confident and confrontational stance whereupon they now believe they can legally compel the museums to return their looted treasures. Where the 20th Century embodied a sense of futility, frustration, and incurable loss of property, the 21st Century seems to be one that will empower nation-states and individuals to correct the crimes of the past and to reclaim their looted treasures.

One can observe the stark changes in world opinion by analyzing numerous recent events on this subject. Begin with a consideration of the following general questions: "who can own the past" (2); "who has a right to keep the spoils of war"; and "can anyone own someone else's history?" Heretofore, these questions were predominantly addressed only by scholars and academics; now, however, variations thereof are immensely popular today in the general press. A plethora of authors, including this one, (3) have analyzed the different takings and demanded the return of looted items based upon historical, moral, ethical, political and/or legal grounds. Scores of books and newspaper articles have flooded the market to address contemporary and historic lootings: the Baghdad Museum; the Kennewick Man; the Sphinx's Beard; the Rosetta Stone; the Parthenon Marbles; and the Nazi Holocaust thefts have captured, and recaptured, our attention. Today's society sees the debate in simple terms of right and wrong, black and white. It is axiomatic that Holocaust survivors and/or their heirs must have their Nazi looted property returned to them. It is axiomatic that the Sphinx Beard and Rosetta Stone belong in Egypt; that the Parthenon Marbles belong in Greece, and on, and on. That ancient treasures have been looted from Nation States as imperial spoils of war and carted thousands of miles away to now be owned by and displayed in the trophy boxes of foreign "international" museums--is simply wrong. That Nazi-looted art from Holocaust victims is owned by and displayed in international museums--is simply wrong. …

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Empty "International" Museums' Trophy Cases of Their Looted Treasures and Return Stolen Property to the Countries of Origin and the Rightful Heirs of Those Wrongfully Dispossessed
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