Historical and Archaeological Findings in News

Will Europe ever return ‘Looted’ Asian Artifacts?


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: 1970 UNESCO Convention

Mains level: Return of Artifacts



  • European museums have faced increasing pressure to return cultural artifacts to their countries of origin.
  • The restitution of these artifacts carries significant implications for diplomacy and international relations.

France’s Pledge and Precedent

  • France’s Commitment: President Emmanuel Macron pledged support during the visit of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet to return Khmer artifacts and expand the National Museum of Cambodia.
  • First European Leader: Macron became the first European leader to address demands for the return of looted antiquities in 2017, emphasizing France’s commitment to restoring cultural heritage.

Cases of Repatriation

  • Musee Guimet’s Return: France’s National Museum of Asian art, Musee Guimet, agreed to return a seventh-century Khmer statue to Cambodia, taken during the colonial era.
  • Global Initiatives: Germany and France allocated funds for reviewing African heritage objects, possibly signaling similar efforts for Asian artifacts.
  • The Met’s Decision: The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York pledged to return sculptures to Cambodia and Thailand, setting a precedent for other institutions.

Legal Basis and Challenges

  • UNESCO Convention: 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property
  • Non-binding: It is a key legal framework for repatriation, but it doesn’t apply retrospectively to colonial-era looting.
  • National Legislation: Some countries, like Austria, are proposing national laws for returning objects acquired during colonialism.

Reasons for repatriation

  • Soft Power Benefits: Repatriation can enhance a nation’s soft power, showcasing a commitment to international law, reconciliation, and better relations with affected countries.
  • Rebranding Opportunity: Returning artifacts is seen as an opportunity for Western governments to rebrand and mend historical wrongs, especially in regions like Southeast Asia.
  • EU’s Role: The European Parliament discusses the need for recognizing and addressing colonial legacies and restitution, potentially creating a permanent EU body on restorative justice.
  • Cooperation is Key: To gain recognition similar to the United States, European museums need to cooperate openly with the governments of the regions from which the artifacts originated.


  • The return of cultural artifacts taken during colonialism is not only a legal and ethical issue but also a diplomatic endeavor.
  • European museums that engage in proactive repatriation efforts can build goodwill, foster cooperation, and enhance their soft power on the global stage.

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