Art and Repatriation:

The ins and outs of one of the art world’s most contentious topics

The repatriation of artworks is a real minefield.


Ancient coins, exotic armory, sacred sculpture, African jewels… It’s easy to see these objects in a national museum and forget that they have might have been pillaged by colonial explorers hundreds of years ago. We naturally assume that museums and national institutions are ethical places. But often, this isn’t the case. I have to pinch myself to believe that today, in 2019, national British museums are still home to thousands of stolen objects, which they flatly refuse to give back. In this post I’m going to talk about a few famous examples of art objects in the midst of the repatriation debate. Let me explain…


What is repatriation?


Repatriation is the return of objects taken unjustly from foreign countries, usually during colonisation, or war. To put it simply, when countries like the UK were invading Africa, Asia, and Oceania, they helped themselves to a lot of precious stuff. Which we still have. And refuse to give back. So, repatriation is the act of sending these objects home, back where they belong. Surprisingly, the argument is actually a little more complicated than that, but I’ll talk more about this later. 

Hoa Hakananai’a


I’m going to start by talking about an object which has been in the newspapers a lot recently. You might recognise Hoa Hakananai’a as an Easter Island head, currently imprisoned in the British Museum. In June, the president of the Council of Elders of Easter Island made an emotional plea to the British Museum, asking for it’s return. For Easter Islanders, it is a cultural belief that the statue embodies the spirit of their ancestors, which obviously holds enormous sentimental value.


How did it come to be in the British Museum?


Hoa Hakananai’a was stolen from Easter Island by Richard Powell, captain of HMS Topaze, in around 1870. This was during a period when the British liked to think they owned the world and everything in it, and helped themselves to what they saw as “primitive curiosities”. Unfortunately, captains and explorers stole a lot of stuff. Hoa Hakananai’a was taken by force, and brought back to the UK to impress royalty, and adorn the museums and collections of high-society. It was taken thousands of miles away, to a place with absolutely no understanding of its cultural importance. It was a different time, and the British clearly were not bothered by this ruthless pillaging of exotic ‘curios’. However, this was 150 years ago, and I like to think that attitudes have changed. But somehow it is still okay to keep stolen objects, even when the country that owns the item is literally begging for them back. 


As if the whole affair of having to ask for your own stuff back wasn’t bad enough, the British Museum really came into their own: they denied the request to return the sculpture, but “compromised” with the idea of “loaning” the object back to Easter Island. How patronising: to have the audacity to suggest loaning a stolen item back to the place where it belongs is completely beyond me. 

Another example is the Rosetta Stone.


Amazingly, this humble lump of granite is the key to understanding ancient language, and was the first example of ancient Egyptian bilingual text. It was made in Egypt in the year 196 BC. Since its rediscovery by a French soldier in 1799 as a part of the Napoleonic Regime in Egypt, the stele has helped to translate ancient hieroglyphic scripts. So there’s no denying, this is one important rock.

And it’s final resting place? You guessed it – the British Museum. It is unclear exactly how the Rosetta Stone ended up in the UK, but it is thought that the British laid claim to it as compensation for having driven the French army out of Egypt. All versions of the story basically see the British smuggling it out of the country – however it happened, no version of the story sees any consultation with Egypt. Throughout recent years, Dr Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, has requested the item’s return, calling it “the icon of our Egyptian identity”. And I think that’s fair enough. Something as culturally significant as the Rosetta Stone has no place outside Egypt, but as usual, the British Museum has absolutely no intention of giving it back.

In another internationally patronising blow, the museum created an exact, full-sized, fiberglass replica of the stone to present to Egypt… I don’t think it was quite what they were after. Needless to say, despite multiple requests for loans and repatriation, the Rosetta Stone is yet to leave the UK.


I’m making out the British Museum to be the bad guy here, but they are by no means the only one. Stolen objects are dispersed across Europe and the world: Egypt’s Luxor Obelisk is in Paris (but at least President Macron is on our side), the Benin bronzes are in Berlin and London, there are Oceanic shields and weapons in Naples… Lots of international museums have faced requests for important items to be repatriated, including the Louvre, the Met in New York, and the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Embarrassingly enough, they issued a joint statement in 2002: “objects acquired in earlier times must be viewed in the light of different sensitivities and values reflective of that earlier era”. Seriously? It’s a half-hearted excuse which would serve best as an apology alongside the items’ return. The statement continues: “museums serve not just the citizens of one nation but the people of every nation”. It can’t just be me that thinks this isn’t good enough? 

What does the law say?

Like most things legal, it is complicated. However, in a non-colonial context, art repatriation is taken extremely seriously. The Nazi plunder of artworks from public and private institutions during WWII was treated as a war crime in the Nuremburg Trials. There is still an international incentive to return these looted works to their rightful places. Funnily enough, “values reflective of that earlier era” doesn’t apply to Nazi-pillaged art.

In terms of art stolen in the colonial period, European law implements a Statute of Limitations. This is a “system to set the maximum time after an event within which legal proceedings may be initiated.” In other words, if it happened a really long time ago (with the exception of WWII, but the inclusion of every other war), the case is invalid in a court of law. The consequence is that Egypt and Easter Island can’t take the British Museum, or James Cook and other such explorers, to court. And for the museums, that’s case closed.

 What’s the argument?

Despite the law, the repatriation of art stolen during the colonial looting of foreign countries is more of a moral obligation. However, there might be some argument for keeping stolen artworks and sacred objects where they are. In the case of Hoa Hakananai’a, there is some concern in Easter Island for the fate of moai. They were made to be out in the elements, but they are being slowly eroded by extreme weather. At the British Museum, Hoa Hakananai’a is kept in a temperature-controlled room, just short of being wrapped in cotton wool. It is certainly protected from the elements, and the lack of protection in their native countries is one of the key arguments for foreign museums keeping their looted objects. 

Museums argue that they have the infrastructure and technology to preserve these items for thousands of years to come, whereas in their original position, they would eventually be lost. It’s true to a certain extent, but the countries of origin haven’t had the chance to prove themselves – Hoa Hakananai’a was on Easter Island long before it was stolen, so it’s pretty rich to suggest they don’t know how to keep it. What’s more, it’s not the UK’s object to protect. If it was made to be outdoors, then so be it; frankly, the British Museum is an unnatural location for an object that was never meant to be there. Conservation is secondary. 

But the argument does not end here. I am an advocate for repatriation under the right circumstances, and this is an extremely sensitive topic that requires tact and diplomacy. There are a number of pitfalls that one might encounter if the UK were to suddenly just give everything back. Firstly, a lot of day-to-day objects that were pillaged from these ‘exotic’ places did not hold a great deal of sentimental value to the people from whom they were stolen. Therefore, it would be extremely inconsiderate to offer these items back – they might have no interest in these objects’ return, and such a gesture could be seen as patronising and offensive. One solution could be to start by repatriating the objects which have been specifically requested, like Hoa Hakananai’a, and many others. 

The conclusion?

If you can’t tell, the repatriation of looted objects whose return has been specifically requested is something that I feel very strongly about. In my opinion, the urgency for Nazi-looted artworks to be returned shows the double standard of European objectives, and the inferior importance of objects looted from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. The western-bias is at it again, and it’s just not fair. These institutions should have realised their mistake 100 years ago, and sent the artworks back with a heartfelt apology. But instead, in 2019, they’re turning down tearful pleas for the return of sacred objects, and instead suggesting patronising loans and copies. It is certainly a complicated process, but with international cooperation and acceptance, maybe one day the UK can right some of these drastic wrongs. 


Thanks for reading!

The Art Wanderer

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