Stolen Art. Homecoming

written by Patrick Morgan

With new laws in place, more museums are keen to return unethically and illegally sourced artifacts to the countries of their origin. Read more about the recent art repatriations and why now more than ever before, it is so important to build an ethically sound collection.

Ancestral shrine in Royal Palace, Benin City, 1891: the earliest-known photograph of the Oba's compound. Note 'bronze' heads at both ends of the shrine. Image: Public Domain

Repatriation of Looted Art from Museums Around the World

A wave of important and culturally significant works of art are on their way home after years of negotiations. A large group of Benin Bronzes, famously looted during the 1897 British Punitive Expedition, are being returned to Nigeria. These priceless artifacts dating from the 13th to the 19th century, were stolen from the Oba Royal Palace in Benin during the 19th century siege and were sold to private collectors and museums around the world. The majority of these bronzes ended up in various museums in England, Germany, France, Holland, Belgium and the United States. 

Related: 10 Major Art Thefts

Germany recently signed an agreement to transfer ownership of 512 of these looted objects to Nigeria over the next several years. The first group of Bronzes being returned are on display presently at the Humboldt Museum in Berlin for a final farewell show, and will be returned later this year. One third of the Bronzes will remain in Germany as a museum loan and one third will be used for academic studies and eventually all will be returned to Nigeria.

The Horniman Museum in London also recently announced a similar agreement to return all of the 72 Benin Bronzes in its collection to the Nigerian Government over the next several years, keeping some on loan for display and future research. 

Related: The FBI of the Art World

The Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African Art also agreed to a similar move last year to repatriate its collection of looted bronzes to the peoples of Nigeria.

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An idealised depiction of Benin City by a Dutch artist in "Description of Africa" (1668).

An idealised depiction of Benin City by a Dutch artist in "Description of Africa" (1668). Image: Public Domain

Single-figure plaque, mid-sixteenth to seventeenth century, cast copper alloy, Dallas Museum of Art

Single-figure plaque, mid-sixteenth to seventeenth century, cast copper alloy, Dallas Museum of Art. Image: Public Domain

British Museums and The Charities Act 2022

Apparently the British Museum has been exempt from these attempts at repatriation due to two little known laws; the British Museum Act of 1963 and the National Heritage Act 1983. Now, however, a new law has just been passed known as The Charities Act of 2022 which will reverse these former restrictions and will allow all national museums to repatriate, and or deaccession, objects which were taken under morally questionable circumstances. This in turn may open the door for other important works of art held in The British Museums collections, notably the Parthenon Marbles seized by Lord Elgin between 1802-1812 which were shipped to England under the guise of preservation due to the damage that was being done to other Greek temples during the Ottoman-Habsburg Wars. Essentially the theft has been justified over the years, since in theory, they would have been destroyed if left in their original location atop the Parthenon. 

Related: Whose Art is it, Anyway?

A portrait depicting the Parthenon Marbles in a temporary Elgin Room at the British Museum surrounded by museum staff, a trustee and visitors, 1819

This painting by  Archibald Archer (1791-1848), shows an idealised view of the Temporary Elgin Room at the Museum in 1819, with portraits of staff, a trustee and visitors. The room was designed by the Museum’s architect, Robert Smirke, for the temporary display of the sculptures from the Parthenon brought from Athens by Lord Elgin known as the 'Elgin Marbles', purchased by the Government and deposited in the British Museum in 1816. Image: Public Domain

Illegal Art Dealers and their Wrongdoings

Recently the Cambodian government has begun the process of seeking the return of over a hundred important works of art held in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum as well as The British Museum. The statues in question were looted from important temples throughout Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime which was marked by decades of humanitarian abuse from 1975-1990’s. The pieces in question were protected under the Hague Convention’s important cultural properties laws, but were exported illegally and sold by rogue British art dealer Douglas Latchford, who died in 2020, and was already under indictment for dealing in stolen antiquities at the time of his death. His daughter, his sole heir, has renounced the family's personal collection and transferred ownership of the entire inventory of the family's collection back to the government of Cambodia. 

A seated figure in a niche; 950-975 AD; made in the Bantey Srei style; Dallas Museum of Art

A seated figure in a niche; 950-975 AD; made in the Bantey Srei style; Dallas Museum of Art. Image: Public Domain

Earlier this month the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, had 27 works of art from Rome, Italy and Greece seized by the Manhattan district attorney office of investigators. The pieces have a value of more than 13 million dollars and were sold by dealers suspected of trafficking in antiquities. The most notable dealer was Gianfranco Becchina, who has been an important expert and dealer in antiquities for several decades selling important works of art from his Galerie Antike Kunst Palladion in Basel, Switzerland.

“Inter Caetera”- With Pope's Permission

When viewing history with present day hindsight, the moral issues behind colonial and missionary actions from the 15th century through the 19th century are hard to justify. However the original document which launched hundreds of ships filled with explorers, colonials and missionaries over several centuries is rarely, if ever mentioned. The document is the Papal Bull written in 1493, titled “Inter Caetera”. It was written for Christopher Columbus by Pope Alexander VI Borgia to give his explorations around the world the authority of divine rite. His mission was to spread the word of God for the Catholic Church, one line in particular tells the story; “that the health of souls be cared for and that Barbarous Nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself”. Essentially any and all acts of aggression, including seizing lands, natural resources, people as well as religious and important cultural artefacts were done in the name of God, and therefore all acts were essentially beyond reproach since they were doing God’s work in the name of converting natives to the true faith. This Bull has justified centuries of colonial and missionary aggression and it has never been rescinded. At the present moment there is a new call for the revocation of this historic document which paved the way for countless humanitarian atrocities in order to make amends for the centuries of colonial expansion made in the name of God

Portrait of Pope Alexander VI Borgia,  late 15th century, Vatican Museums.

Portrait of Pope Alexander VI Borgia, late 15th century, Vatican Museums. Image: Public Domain

How to Collect Ethically?

In today’s modern, woke world, we need to respect all cultures and peoples. The momentum to return important cultural artefacts to their countries of origin is building up steam and is a strong move in showing respect to all past cultures who were harmed historically by colonial misdeeds and a way to move forward, together, as one society which respects the rights and dignities of all other peoples. 

We will never stop collecting beautiful things from around the world. They are the things that fascinate the imagination and take us back to ancient, primitive times. They are why we search for interesting souvenirs when traveling or buy beautiful works from galleries, or pay too much for a special piece at auction because the bidding was so fierce.…

Related: Collecting Antiquities

 Building an ethical collection either for a museum or for personal pleasure/investment, now requires a strong focus not only on provenance and or the circumstances under which an object was acquired but a certain amount of due diligence, to be sure the dealer you are buying from is indeed honest and transparent in his or her dealings. When buying at auction, always ask the expert if there are any supporting documents when provenance is listed (quite often the provenance noted is simply an oral history with no actual proof). Ultimately this is why, when the provenance of a piece is well noted and documented, proving the piece was collected and acquired in a legal manner, was handled by an important museum or collector, sold by a known dealer or published and or exhibited in a serious show or museum, can make a piece of art worth hundreds of times more than a similar work which lacks provenance. 

New Acropolis Museum, Athens. Ruins in the entrance

New Acropolis Museum, Athens. Ruins in the entrance. Image: Tomisti / License: CC BY-SA 3.0

On a final note, we need to ask ourselves; Whether an important cultural object is too important to be bought or sold ? And if so, shouldn’t we be returning some of these controversial pieces which have been taken from their countries of origin, under unethical circumstances, over the last several hundred years, quickly and without delay?

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Patrick Morgan is a Dealer and Expert in Tribal Arts and Art Generalist who has been living in Paris since 2002. He began his career field collecting textiles and tribal artefacts in the Golden Triangle of Thailand, Laos and Burma in the late 1980’s and by 1992 was making several trips a year, exclusively to Mali, sourcing textiles and the ritual arts of the Dogon, Senufo and Bambara cultures. He began exhibiting these finds in addition to pieces from important American collections in 1998 showing at the major US Tribal Art Fairs in San Francisco, Santa Fe, New York as well as the European fairs in both Paris and Berlin. He has worked for several European auction houses as both consultant and expert.

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