Repatriation of Artifacts & Antiquities under Colonial Possession

In previous blog of this series we learnt that our heritage under Colonial possession qualifies as an “illegal acquisition” as per international conventions. 

So technically, countries like UK are indeed liable to return antiquities and heritage properties under their private or public possession. But politics aside, there are some other reasons due to which there has been little progress on restitution of Peacock Throne, or everyone’s favourite- the Koh-i-Noor diamond.

International Conventions on returning colonial possessions

  1. UNESCO’s Convention on the Means of prohibiting and preventing the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property (1970)
    • Newly independent states after World wars, were trying to recover important cultural objects that are mostly found in the museums of their former colonizing state.
    • Three main pillars: Protection against theft (Preventive Measure), Restitution Measures through Diplomatic channels, and International cooperation.
    • But the issue with this convention is that its mandate is not retroactive and most of the illegal acquisitions were made before 1970 before the fall of Colonialism.
    • Contemporary relevance: Monuments are being destroyed locally (IS in Syria or the Taliban in Afghanistan) can be taken out and protected for the sake of the whole world by a capable country under this convention. It can later be returned to the “source” countries when the conflict ends.
  2. UN General Assembly resolutions
    • UNGA has made successive resolutions on this matter
    • Deplored “the wholesale removal of Cultural Heritage, virtually without payment” as a result of colonial or Foreign Occupation
    • Unlike UNESCO’s convention- their mandates has been retroactive
    • Covered cultural property lost either as a consequence of
      1. Foreign or colonial occupation, or
      2. Through illicit traffic “prior” to the adoption of the 1970 Convention
    • Then why no success?
      • Covers cultural properties that are currently in safe places and open to the public, like museums, archives and libraries. Thus, it does not cover the equally important Private Sphere
      • CAG’s findings that Indian artifacts have reached foreign auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s
      • Eg- Bonhams, the london private auctioneer, recently auctioned Tipu Sultan’s property against all efforts by India to claim its ownership over it.
      • Most of the personal wealth and possessions of the 18th century Mysore ruler including that of Tipu Sultan, is in the illegal private possession of families, descendants of British and Scottish soldiers <which particular soldier/general could we be referring to?>
    • Why no repatriation from Public Museums?
      • Cultural institutions like Public Museums have yet to acknowledge the full negative legacy of the colonial rulers.
      • While many of these museums are autonomous, when such demands are made on an International level, local governments do intervene and matter turns diplomatic and political.

Why Repatriation of possessions is a just demand?

  1. Repatriation is already happening: Restitution of Jewish Artifacts by Nazis
    • Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) adopted a series of protocols to ensure that any work of art proven to be taken forcibly from a Jewish family during the Nazi regime should be returned to the rightful heirs
    • Between 1998 and 2006, 26 works in American museums were identified as being looted by the Nazis and were, in each case, restituted to the heirs
  2. Non-governmental actors succeeding on many levels— students resident in the U.K. — getting into the discussion around national cultural patrimony
    • Nigerian students demanding the return of the Benin bronzes looted from Nigeria at the time of the British imperial siege of the country in the late 19th century
    • Pressure generated so far has led for Cambridge University to remove the articles from Public display. It goes a long way into acknowledging the mistakes, if not outrightly returning the possessions.
    • Furthermore, few descendants of British Soldiers have shown the way by returning Nigerian Artifacts to their rightful owners, that was otherwise looted by their grandfathers in 19th century.

Why are ex-Colonialists against repatriation?      

  1. They say that Encyclopedic museums of Europe and the U.S. are repositories of world art under one roof.
    • That they take care (by acting as protectors) of our global heritage, as art knows no boundaries
    • In this way they claim to be promoting international understanding of art.
    • Counter: This argument reeks of old European big-brother attitude that claims to be a superior civilization taking upon itself the task of correcting other civilizations.
  2. Objects were taken from countries such as Egypt, China, or India because none of these countries had the resources or the inclination to protect their own treasures
    • It was British officials who discovered, excavated or restored great sites such as Sanchi or Ajanta while there was no indigenous interest in preserving them at the time.
    • Counter: By this logic, they should return these artifacts to us, because now capable and resourceful enough to preserve the

What are the “real” consequences of Repatriation on ex-Colonial countries?

  • Former colonizers would have to acknowledge various wrongs perpetrated by them on the colonies they ruled. This would result in a domino effect and not just restricted to repatriation of heritage objects, and could cause an International debacle and domestic shame.
  • Many of the biggest museums, especially the Louvre, the British Museum, and even some major American museums would get hollowed out of their collections

So how do we resolve this issue?

  1. Museums of the Euro-American world could create a Long-term Loan programme
    • National Museum in New Delhi were to receive a long-term loan of Egyptian objects or 19th century American landscape paintings so that the National Museum too could begin to resemble an encyclopaedic museum of the West
  2. Seriously think about returning the ownership of objects back to the source countries
    • This could only happen if Western museums actually acknowledged the colonial past.
    • And simply recognising their role as “protectors” of, and not “owners” of global heritage.

Published with inputs from Amar 
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By B2B

Revisiting the Basics

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