Wednesday 7 April 2010

International Cooperation for the Protection and Repatriation of Cultural Heritage

A lot of press attention has been received by the Cairo conference “International Cooperation for the Protection and Repatriation of Cultural Heritage ” being held at an administration building next to Cairo’s opera house, 7th-8th April. This concerns the trafficking of ancient artefacts as trophies and seeks to find ways of securing the return of these artefacts which are now in the museums and collections of Europe and the United States.

The main subject of the current spate of news stories is the determination of the delegates to present a united front on these issues. As Zahi Hawass, the convener of the session and rapidly becoming the figurehead of the cultural property trophy artefacts repatriation movement pointed out to his audience: “We need to co-operate, we need a unification between our countries. Every country is fighting alone; every country suffered alone, especially Egypt". “We will battle together ... "Maybe we will not succeed in a lifetime, [but] we have to open the subject".

The session will discuss strategies for recovering key works from foreign museums. One proposal was that the delegates should produce one list of artifacts that world opinion should demand return home. "We need to co-operate all of us especially with that wish list. we need all of us to come with one list and fight until [we get these] artefacts back”, Hawass is reported as saying. He emphasized that countries are not seeking to reclaim all antiquities, simply those taken illegally and artifacts of great historical value to the original country. The range of artefacts involved is quite wide, and many of them have already been widely discussed. Greece wants the British Museum to return the Parthenon Marbles; Mexico seeks the feathered headdress of Montezuma which is now in Vienna’s Museum of Ethnology; the Nigerians wants bronzes and other items from Benin back from the British Museum, Egypt wants the Rosetta Stone and bust of Nefertiti and a number of other ‘iconic’ items scattered in several European collections.

The conference stressed that even in cases where these objects had been legally acquired by standards of over a century ago, this is more of a question of goodwill, of surrendering cultural items held as hostages by formerly powerful nations as a symbol of power and domination. “Forget the legal issue,” Hawass is quoted as having said. “Important icons should be in their motherland, period”.
Another of the aims of the conference was to find ways of ensuring a more fuller implementation of the 1970 UNESCO convention under which countries agreed measures to prevent the illegal export of national treasures. Hawass pointed out that international rules and treaties are of little use in getting key relics back; several international conventions since 1954 have prohibited wartime looting, theft and resale of artifacts. These conventions do not however apply to items taken abroad before national laws or global agreements were in force. The conference delegates are expected to conclude that they should. It has been stated that a major initiative for the conference will therefore be to draft an appeal to amend the 1970 UNESCO Convention. In its current form, the Convention is not retroactive, but the delegates are reported to want it changed so that it applies to items acquired prior to that date. A united stand between affected nations would bolster the claims.

The continued looting that erodes the archaeological record of the unlucky “source countries” is also a source of concern. Apart from indiscriminate private collectors, “museums are the main source for stolen artifacts. If they stop (buying stolen artifacts) the theft will be less," Hawass told delegates. Nevertheless some advances have been made. Hawass also pointed out “we have good cooperation with other countries. We have had artifacts returned from Spain, Italy but the number one country that has returned artifacts is the United States". He discretely did not add that the US was probably the number one country which provides a market for stolen antiquities, with (according to ACCG figures) an estimated 50 000 collectors of ancient dug-up coins alone.

It seems to me that the programme of this conference is a trifle over-ambitious for such a short meeting. Defining a wish list of artefacts to be returned may sound easy, but to be effective it needs to be global in extent, and not exclude nations that were prevented from sending delegates for one reason or another (was Israel invited for example?). Also it is likely to mix objects which are not where delegates would want them to be for different reasons. Should the Benin Punitive Mission of 1897 be seen in the same terms as Lord Elgin's men about a century earlier sawing off bits of a ruined building to make portable pieces of art? It seems to me that two days for a presentation of the issues and debate on this one topic alone are scarcely enough if it is intended to produce by the end of the meeting a definitive list.

Secondly there is no way that (however much one might regret the way it is phrased) the 1970 UNESCO Convention can be amended to be retrospective. The very notion is simply naïve. At the very inkling of such a thing happening key market nations will withdraw and the whole shaky edifice of international co-operation on its basis will collapse. This is a pity because the UNESCO Convention is full of holes and we do need another better one. Nevertheless rendering it retrospective to include past “wrongs” really is not its function, neither is it practical (I think the 1970 cut-off date for legitimacy is already too much in the “historical past” of the antiquities). I also wonder to what extent it is really needed to regulate what must in the end be settled by compromise and gestures of goodwill between nations – and yes, naming and shaming and even a little gentle academic-political blackmail like the resolution of the Louvre stolen TT15 relief affair.

I am therefore unsure what the purpose of “uniting” would be and what form that could take. Perhaps the reports of the conference’s final conclusions tomorrow will give a better idea.

Marwa Awad, Egypt urges states to cooperate on artifact return, Reuters Television Apr 7, 2010.
Daniel Williams Egypt Leads Multinational Call to Bring Disputed Relics Home April 07, 2010
CBC News Teamwork needed to recover looted antiquities: Hawass , April 7, 2010
Unite to recover looted artefacts, Egypt forum told

Vignette: "The British Museum Looter of Africa"photomontage.

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