Art Works Sought by Native Countries
Centuries-old loot is creating a sticky situation for major art museums. In the 21st century, the global repatriation movement is gaining momentum. Private collectors are buying back cultural treasures, major museums are returning important works, and great nations are resorting to legal measures and harsh bargaining tactics when their requests go unanswered. From The Rosetta Stone to The Greek Elgin Marbles and many lesser known artifacts, museum curators are facing tough decisions that touch on history, ethics, research and heritage.
The contested ownership of priceless artifacts is creating an international firestorm and fueling intense bickering matches. Since 2003, Egypt has been demanding the return of The Rosetta Stone from The British Museum. The U.K. won’t give in, even though an exact replica is already on display. Recently, Egypt has taken legal action to recover two pharaonic tomb carvings from museums in Belgium and England. If they don’t comply, Egypt says that archeologists employed by these institutions will be banned from working in the Land of the Pharaohs.
Greece and Turkey have made similar demands for the return of treasures from these cradles of civilization. Turkey has successfully recovered more than 4,000 artifacts by threatening to deny archeological permits and refusing to lend objects for major European and British exhibitions. Greece has not been so successful, although the international public supports the return of its most famous artifacts. Since the 2004 Summer Olympics, Greece has been requesting the return of the exquisite Elgin marble carvings from Great Britain and the famous “Nike of Samothrace” statue, which resides in the Louvre. Many experts fear a domino effect if works are returned after centuries in Europe’s storied museums. Others contend that keeping objects in the West has greater benefits to researchers and the public than if the objects were returned to their home countries.
The solution suggested by experts is a compromise that benefits everyone. By acting with diplomacy, both sides could create a satisfactory conclusion that allows these priceless items to be recognized as the property of their homeland and to be exhibited internationally through long-term loan agreements. Although each piece has its own issues, it’s possible that international organizations can achieve a happy resolution.
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