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Playing hardball with soft power on restitution claims

Western museums are feeling the pressure over restitution claims from China, Turkey and Cambodia

The number of artefacts in Western museums and private collections being hit by restitution claims appears to be rising fast, with the crucial difference that the demands are no longer focused solely on historic claims of Italy or Greece. They are now as likely to be from China, India, Peru, Cambodia or Turkey.

In 2009, China announced plans to send investigators to institutions in the US, France, Spain and the UK, including the British Museum, to catalogue items that might have been seized by foreign powers during and after the Second Opium War. This involved 1.5 million objects from the Summer Palace alone, according to Chinese campaigners (see box). The operation has been seen as a precursor to a wider suite of restitution claims or at the very least, a shot across the bows of Western institutions.

One factor is the growing awareness of the role that cultural artefacts can play in forging national identities. This is especially true where countries are emerging from internal or external conflicts and are looking to culture to provide social cement or to legitimate a cohesive future for a nation-state based on the relics of past greatness. In a post-Maoist China, for example, the Cultural Revolution’s rejection of the “four olds” has been replaced by a national narrative that stresses the strength of the Middle Kingdom and its renewed role as a world power.

James Cuno, the president and chief executive of the J. Paul Getty Trust, responded to this new reality with his questionable championing of encyclopaedic museums: “Nationalism is the motive for modern nation-state claims on antiquity,” he has written, pointing out the dangers of such cultural/political projects to those whose ethnicity might not be convenient to the nation-shapers.

Challenging traditional powerhouses

This is a legitimate concern, but questioning motives doesn’t itself affect the validity of the restitution claims of a post-colonial world. Cuno’s argument could just as easily be seen as a reflection of the mounting alarm over the challenges from the developing world to the authority of the traditional powerhouses of museology.

Countries that were once the source of the disputed artefacts now have the cash and political will to allow such challenges to be mounted. This new wealth also means that there are more museum displays to be populated—390 museums opened in China alone during 2011.

As Claire Smith, the president of the World Archaeological Congress, points out: “The repatriation of cultural artefacts from Western collections is a powerful statement in itself, and the display of repatriated artefacts acts to reinforce the power of those who have obtained their restitution... and iconic artefacts held in Western collections have their own special cache. This is simply the converse of the power that is exhibited by Western countries when they display or hold artefacts that rightfully belong to other nations.”

Any new climate for “non-traditional” restitutions, however, is not simply about the rising clout of the Bric (Brazil, Russia, India and China) economies. Francesco Bandarin, Unesco’s assistant director-general for culture, argues that changing attitudes in the West are also key to change: “It all has to do with the very bad image that museums got during [the past] ten years—remember the Getty and the Metropolitan forced by courts to return objects to Italy? Since then museums have taken a much more cautious approach… they are more careful in buying objects with dubious origin.

“Museums do not want to be seen as accomplices to the organisations that deal with illegally excavated or looted objects. The best way to mark the difference is to return the objects [and] that gets widely publicised,” he says.

Smith offers another example: “One point of change was in 2005 with the return of the Axum Obelisk from Italy to Ethiopia. This was highly publicised and showed that a low-income country could exert moral authority over a high-income country. The return of the obelisk was a return to international legality (its return was included as article 37 of the 1947 Italian peace treaty) and a symbol of the decolonisation of Italian-Ethiopian relations.”

Bandarin notes that there is also “stronger legislation in place, especially in Switzerland and the US, that gives more power to the countries of origin”. These include the Swiss Federal Act on the International Transfer of Cultural Property 2004 and the 2013 guidelines (rather than legislation) on ethical collecting issued by the Association of Art Museum Directors in the US.

Restitution claims on the rise?

Donna Yates of the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Glasgow warns, however, that this publicity can distort perceptions: “The shift is not that source countries are using artefacts to forge national identities for the first time (they have for

hundreds of years).” Instead, she suggests, “we in the demand countries are starting to understand the importance of these items to their source country. Hearts and minds have shifted in the demand countries.”

Yates also questions the assumption that there has been any actual upswing in restitution claims from new players. London’s Victoria and Albert Museum told The Art Newspaper that it has not seen any increase in restitution demands.

She calls for ”hard numbers” that would chart the scale of repatriation claims year on year: “I don’t think this is a new trend. It just seems like that because they are making the news more as the public becomes interested. Peru has a long history of making claims for its cultural property as does Bolivia and most Central American countries. There was a strong push throughout the 1970s and 1980s to return Mayan architectural and sculptural objects.

“That said, these claims can be expensive and time consuming,” Yates adds. “Developing countries are becoming more involved because they have gained some confidence that they might be successful rather than just a drain on resources.”

What is true is that some nations are using hardball tactics to ensure their cases are heard. Egypt has suspended dig permits for the Louvre, the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Ashmolean in Oxford and the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels over restitution claims. And Turkey has been refusing loan requests from European and US museums where there is a dispute over claims. Last year, the Turkish culture and tourism minister Ertugrul Gunay told the Guardian newspaper that restitutions claims reflected a growing pride in the country’s cultural heritage: “What we have taken back is only a very small part of what we will take back,” he said.

“These are tough tactics but a legitimate response,” Claire Smith says. “Peru played hard ball in terms of the Machu Picchu collection held by Yale University, saying it would sue if the artefacts were not returned. This sparked negotiations and what was finally a fair outcome for all.”

Yates agrees: “It is a bit rough on the archaeologists involved because, by and large, they are not connected in any way to museums or collectors so it is hard to imagine that the alleged evil-doers in the equation feel any of the sting of the ban. But Egypt, Turkey and any sovereign state has the right to decide who they grant excavation permits to.”

Murky tactics

Other states have been engaged in more murky tactics in their desire to settle or avoid claims o­r to achieve other non-cultural aims through soft power, such as the Russian state’s threat to withdraw loans to London’s Royal Academy of Arts.

“Repatriation can be a positive experience for all, or it can be a battleground. In some cases the moral ground is clear, such as with objects acquired during the Nazi era or with human skeletal remains, but in others the issue of ownership is murky. I think slowly we are developing a new co-operative model to resolve competing interests in cultural property,” Smith says.

A test case is likely to be the dispute over the Cambodian Duryodhana statue put up for sale by Sotheby’s, New York. It is thought to have been looted during the Vietnam War and the rise of the Khmer Rouge. A US district judge has issued a restraining order on its sale or removal.

Whether Yates’s point about numbers and perceptions is correct or not, conflict and looting in countries such Egypt, Syria and Iraq and an emerging globalised market that can be conducted and monitored via the internet mean that this a territory in constant flux. Tactics will change again, with Smith warning that the market in illegitimate items is responding to additional legal instruments by going further underground: “The trend is influenced by the accessibility of information through the internet and by anti-colonial sentiments in the countries that colonised and those that were colonised. These objects can no longer stay quietly hidden in a dark corner of a museum or art gallery.”

Yates adds: “In post-conflict situations, the revitalisation of collective identity, perhaps with the aid of cultural patrimony, may be an effective way to heal recent wounds. Don’t look at it as a payback for long-standing grievances. Look at it as a people and a country trying to rebuild themselves based on their ancient foundations.”