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Cultural Heritage Ethics

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Constantine Sandis

III. Ownership and Restitution

10. Restitution

Mark Jones

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Note portant sur l’auteur1

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1In considering the thorny questions of restitution it may be helpful to begin with some recent examples of restitution in action, to see if the practice and principles enunciated to support, or implicit in, these cases have a bearing on the yet more controversial areas in which claims for restitution remain contentious.

2On St Andrews Day 1996, a rectangular block of sandstone, ‘The Stone of Destiny’, was formally installed in Edinburgh Castle.

Fig. 11.1 The Coronation Chair of Edward I, 1296, with the Stone of Destiny.

3This act of restitution was intended symbolically and really to undo the actions of Edward I of England ‘Hammer of the Scots’ who, seven hundred years earlier in 1296, had instructed that the Stone of Destiny, the coronation stone of the Kings of Scots, should be taken from Scone Abbey and carried south to Westminster Abbey. There it was placed in the King of England’s coronation chair, ‘King Edward’s Chair’, in Westminster Abbey, thus symbolically asserting and reinforcing England’s claim to sovereignty over Scotland.

Fig. 11.2 King Edward’s Chair, Westminster Abbey, England.

4The Scots were not alone in believing that objects had the power to confer and confirm legitimacy in the exercise of power. St Stephen’s Crown, for example, not only conferred legitimacy on the kings of Hungary, but ruled in their place during the regency that followed the First World War. Similarly, the royal treasures held at the Abbey of St Dennis had a crucial part in the inauguration of the Kings of France and the London Stone had a similar function for those who ruled London. For many cultures across the globe (e. g. Maori taonga in New Zealand), objects can acquire sacred or symbolic power which makes them much more significant to people’s sense of themselves and their history than their often unimpressive physical appearance might suggest. It is the symbolic significance of possession and relinquishment, their close association with perceptions of power and status, that makes restitution and return so difficult and emotionally charged.

5The return of the Stone of Destiny was initiated by a desperately unpopular Conservative Secretary of State for Scotland, Michael Forsyth (now Baron Forsyth of Drumlean), who presumably hoped that its return would persuade Scottish voters that Scotland’s nationhood would remain proud and intact under Conservative administration, without devolution (the re-creation of a Scottish parliament) and within the United Kingdom. It was not a success: the Conservatives lost all their Scottish seats in the following elections.

6Surprisingly few questions about this act of restitution were raised at the time. But the Irish and the English have, if we can derive a theory of restitution from the generality of current cases, a better claim to the Stone than the Scots. It is often maintained that objects should be returned to their place of origin: this is one of the bases of Italian, Greek, Turkish and Egyptian claims for the return of antiquities. Yet the ‘origin’ of the authentic Stone of Destiny is, according to legend, not Edinburgh or Scone but Tara in Ireland. It is sometimes also claimed that it is the length of association with a particular place or culture that is important. But the Stone of Destiny has been in Westminster Abbey for longer than it was at Scone Abbey.

  • 2 Auslan Cramb, ‘Stone of Destiny is fake, claims Alex Salmond’, The Telegraph, 16 June 2008, http:// (...)
  • 3 This suggests that it was similar to St Winifred’s seventh-century throne, the ‘Frith Stool’, in He (...)

7To complicate matters further the Stone’s authenticity is questionable. Alex Salmond (First Minister of Scotland and Leader of the Scottish National Party) is one of many who have publicly doubted it.2 It can hardly be true that the stone is, as legend would have it, the coronation stone of the Kings of Tara in Ireland, brought by King Fergus to Scotland in the late fifth century. Geologists have identified the stone from which it is made as coming from the vicinity not of Tara but of Scone in Scotland. Nor does it look like the seat on which John Balliol was crowned in 1292. Walter de Hemingford, who attended Balliol’s coronation, described this as ‘hollowed and made in the form of a round chair’.3 Perhaps the Abbot of Scone gave Edward’s men something else altogether and hid the authentic chair. But if so, why was the authentic stone not used for the coronation of Robert the Bruce? And why did the Scots want it back badly enough to make its return one of their objectives in negotiating the Treaty of Edinburgh/Northampton in 1327-28 (Edward III issued a royal writ requiring its return, but it was never carried out). In 1950 four young nationalists stole the stone from Westminster Abbey. It was broken in the process and Alex Salmond is not alone in suggesting that the stone returned in 1951 could have been one of the copies made by Bertie Gray, the Glasgow stonemason to whom the stone was taken for repair. But would Scots therefore regard an English claim for the permanent return of the Stone to Westminster with indifference? Almost certainly not; at least until a more convincing and better preserved version turns up.

8It begins, I hope, to be apparent that discussion of restitution within the United Kingdom raises many of the key issues in a context which, precisely because it is domestic – and therefore somewhat less fraught than restitution claims involving disputes between states as well as nations – helps us to understand that these issues are universal.

  • 4 Raymond Duncan, ‘A lost Scots treasure emerges from hiding Dunkeld Lectern makes capital return’, T (...)

9There are many other examples of restitution debates within the UK. In May 1999 the leading Scottish Nationalist Winnie Ewing was quoted in the Glasgow Herald: ‘Not only have we seen the return of the Stone of Destiny to Scotland, but another part of our history is returning’.4 She was referring to the Dunkeld Lectern which is said to have been made in Italy in 1498 and given by Pope Alexander VI to George Crichton when he became Bishop of Dunkeld in 1526 (rather confusingly since Alexander VI died in 1503).

Fig. 11.3 The lectern at St Alban’s, Copnor.

  • 5 William Galloway, ‘Notice of an ancient Scottish Lectern of Brass, now in the Parish Church of St S (...)

10William Galloway, a Scottish antiquarian writing in 1879, suggested that the lectern, which bears George Crichton’s name and arms, and which had been found in St Stephen’s Church, in the English town St Albans, when the Montagu family tomb was opened in 1748, might have been given to the church by Sir Richard Lee.5 It is known that Lee looted a brass font from Holyrood Abbey during a punitive expedition launched against the Scots by Henry VIII in 1544, which he gave to the Abbey Church (now cathedral) in St Albans and which was melted down during the English Civil War, so Galloway suggested that the lectern might also have been looted and demanded its return to Scotland.

11The lectern’s loan to the exhibition ‘Angels, Nobles and Unicorns’ in 1982 aroused strong nationalist feelings in Scotland and it was stolen from St Stephen’s church in 1984. Happily it reappeared, after extended negotiations between the Church of England and the Church of Scotland, during my time as director of the National Museums of Scotland in the 1990s, and eventually went on display in the Museum of Scotland as an icon of Scottish History.

12But again, on the basis of the accepted story, the lectern originated not in Scotland but in Italy and has been associated with St Stephen’s Church, St Albans for more than 400 years (from roughly 1544 to 1984) – much longer than with Dunkeld (less than 20 years). To add to the confusion, a census of eagle lecterns of this type demonstrates that they are overwhelmingly found in churches north of London, in East Anglia and central England, and it seems probable that they were made in England or the Low Countries. So it must be the historic wrong, Sir Richard Lee’s putative pillage, that motivated the Church and others to work for, or accept, its return to Scotland, rather than anything particularly Scottish about the object.

13Other contested British objects recently in the news include the Lewis chess pieces, the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Great Bed of Ware.

Fig. 11.4 Great Bed of Ware.

14The Great Bed of Ware was made around 1590 to attract custom to the White Hart Inn in Ware. Subsequently in other inns in Ware, it was sold in 1870 to the owner of Rye House, Hoddesdon, before being bought by the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1931. Some argue that the Great Bed ‘belongs’ in Ware, although there is nothing obviously contestable about the chain of ownership. Its return to the town for a year from April 2012 to April 2013 has been generally welcomed, though even with the publicity generated by this historic event only about 25,000 people saw it during its year there, perhaps a tenth as many as would have seen it in the V & A over the same period. The experiment has perhaps dampened the sometimes excessive expectations about the consequences of a ‘return’ while at the same time reinforcing understanding that there can be multiple legitimate interests or stakeholders in a historically resonant object, particularly when that object is in a public collection and therefore in some sense owned by ‘the people’ as well as by a particular institution.

Fig. 11.5 The opening of St Luke’s Gospel in the Lindisfarne Gospels.

15The Lindisfarne Gospels, made by Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne (699-721), has been in the British Museum/British Library since its foundation in 1753, given by the heirs of Sir Robert Cotton (1570-1631) who acquired it in the early seventeenth century, after its removal from Durham under Henry VIII in the 1530s.

  • 6 Mark Tallentyre, ‘Church’s new leader calls for Lindisfarne Gospels’return’, Northern Echo, 12 Nove (...)
  • 7 ‘Petition demands return of Lindisfarne Gospels’, The Journal, 16 March 2006, http://www.thejournal (...)

16Its return to the north-east of England has been vigorously campaigned for, a campaign that is supported by the former Bishop of Durham, now Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. He was quoted in the Northern Echo: ‘I think something that comes from here should be part of the life of the region’.6 John Danby of the Northumbrian Association took a less nuanced view: ‘They should be restored to their rightful home’.7 It remains to be seen to what extent the loan of the Lindisfarne Gospels to Durham from July-September 2013 satisfied local opinion.

17The Lewis chess pieces bring us back to Scotland, but in this case the issues surrounding them are as much intra as inter-national.

Fig. 11.6 Chess pieces from Uig, Lewis, now at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh.

  • 8 Given by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1888.

18These walrus ivory and whale tooth chess and gaming pieces, made in the late twelfth century, were found in a kist, or container, in the dunes at Uig on Lewis in 1831. Eighty-two are now in the British Museum and eleven in the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh.8 When I was director of the National Museums of Scotland in the 1990s there were strongly stated demands for their return to Lewis – whether to Stornoway or Uig was a matter of debate. There seemed to be a real risk that the pieces could be ‘kidnapped’ if returned to Lewis, but regular loans to the Museum of the Western Isles, initially from the British Museum and the National Museums of Scotland, and in subsequent years from the NMS alone, created a reasonably harmonious partnership which then extended to other exchanges.

  • 9 Sunday Herald, 3 February 2008.
  • 10 Frank Urquhart, ‘Lews Castle to house Western Isles museum’, Scotsman, 27 November 2013, http://www (...)

19In 2007-8 there was a new campaign for their return. Linda Fabiani, Scottish Minister for Europe, External Affairs and Culture said ‘it is unacceptable that only 11 Lewis Chessmen rest at the National Museum of Scotland while the other 82 remain in the British Museum in London’, thus appearing to suggest that ‘return’ should be to Edinburgh rather than Lewis. Margaret Hodge, then Minister for the Arts in Westminster responded ‘It’s a lot of nonsense isn’t it?’,9 while Bonnie Greer, deputy chairman of the British Museum ‘absolutely’ believed that they should stay in London. A renewed loan to an exhibition that toured Scotland in 2009-11, and an agreement that six chess pieces from the British Museum will go on long-term loan to the new museum in Lews Castle in 201510 seemed to restore a degree of harmony. No claim to the chess pieces has yet been lodged by Norway, although the balance of scholarly opinion is that they were probably made in Trondheim.

20What can be learnt from the five examples cited here? First, that there is a strong tendency for well-known objects associated with a place to be claimed for that place. Sometimes the claim is that a historic wrong should be put right: Henry VIII’s despoliation of the monasteries or English looting of a Scottish church. Sometimes there is a sense that objects are significant to the culture, history or society of the place, region or nation in question. Their absence leaves something important incomplete: repossession will restore the community’s identity and make it whole. There are economic arguments too: tourism would be generated and the local economy boosted by possession of the contested objects. In no case is the argument for ‘return’– and I put return in inverted commas because this is the term most widely used even though strictly four out of five cases do not involve return to the putative place of origin – based on what would generally be regarded as a coherent set of generally agreed principles. And yet in every case the argument is deeply felt, often widely supported and, in terms of public reception and results, quite effective.

21Indeed, if we look solely at the effects of the restitution claims cited here, it could be argued that they are on balance positive. The Lewis chess pieces are much better known, have been more thoroughly studied and seen and enjoyed by many more people than would have been the case if they had remained uncontroversial. The same is true of the Lindisfarne Gospels which, though on display in the British Museum for many years when I worked there, attracted very little public attention. The return of the Stone of Destiny meant a lot to many Scots, but there has been no comparable and offsetting sense of loss in England. Active and valuable partnerships have been created around several of these objects, partnerships which would not have come into being without the stimulus of controversy. Although there are unattractive, dog-in-the-mangerish aspects of all these claims, the overall outcome has, so far, been beneficial for all concerned. So might restitution claims be a good thing, to be encouraged rather than feared?

22Certainly the climate of opinion has changed significantly over the last fifty years. When I first worked in the British Museum in the 1970s, it was regular practice to take in and study coin hoards which had been illegally excavated and exported. The argument was that there would be a significant loss to our knowledge of the past if these hoards went unrecorded. This was true of course, but when it became obvious that the countries from which these hoards came regarded this as unethical and unacceptable, and a boycott of offending museums was threatened, policy changed. Since then the British Museum has taken the view that museums must not give encouragement or legitimacy to illegal excavation and trade by acquiring, exhibiting or researching objects which do not have a legitimate history going back to the date of signature of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970,11 and has encouraged others to follow suit.

23I took part in the debates on this issue in the Bizot Group of directors of the big international art museums in the mid-2000s. Philippe de Montebello, then Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and James Cuno, then Director of the Art Institute of Chicago, were among those who argued that the acquisition of unprovenanced works could be a moral duty. If great works of art, however discovered, were not acquired by reputable museums, they would be lost to scholarship and the edification and appreciation of the public. Against that it was argued that by apparently legitimising the collection of unprovenanced works, museums would give out the message that private collection of such pieces would, eventually, be approved not deprecated. Collectors would know that, after the passage of a suitable number of years, they could proudly show their collection in public and perhaps end up by acquiring the prestige accrued from the gift of important and valuable works to great public museums. This tended to sustain the illegal trade which does so much damage to archaeological sites and the artefacts found there, and deprives us all of the invaluable information that only proper excavation can provide. Now all major museums agree on this: indeed, having been actively pursued through the courts by the Italian government, the Getty and the Metropolitan Museums have returned illegally traded objects to Italy. As a result, the value of unprovenanced material has reduced in comparison with provenanced material and restitution is now regarded as right and proper where it can be shown that objects have been illegally excavated or traded. Interestingly though, few museums are undertaking active, systematic provenance research to see if their collections do in fact contain such objects.

24This chimes with other areas in which ethical questions about the process of acquisition or the propriety of retention have been raised. Holdings of human remains, which remained uncontroversial until the 1980s, became the focus of increased anxiety and distaste in the 1990s and were the subject of UK government legislation to enable their return in 2004. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) ‘Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums’ issued in October 2005, with the explicit support of the National Museum Directors’ Conference and the Museums Association recognised that ‘some [human remains] were acquired between 100 and 200 years ago from Indigenous peoples in colonial circumstances, where there was a very uneven divide of power’, and recommended meticulous provenance research with open public access to the resulting information.12 It also provided a step by step guide to dealing with claims for return.

25In the USA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which was signed into law by President George Bush in November 1990, requires federal agencies13 and institutions that receive federal funding to return Native American ‘cultural items’ to lineal descendants and culturally affiliated Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organisations. At the same time, the American Art Museum Directors (AAMD) have in their own words ‘taken a leadership role in restitution of art and other property stolen by the Nazis’. Accepting that the historic wrongs done during the period of Nazi rule in Germany (1933-45) should be undone wherever possible, they published guidelines in June 1998 which became the basis of the Washington Principles agreed later that year. These committed museums to careful and detailed analysis of the provenance of all objects that changed ownership in Europe during the period in question. The importance the AAMD attaches to this is evident from its website which states:

  • 14 ‘Art museums and the identification and restitution of works stolen by the Nazis’, Statement on sta (...)

The AAMD promulgates fundamental standards by which art museums should be governed and managed. … the AAMD’s commitment to these core values and the success of its members in the identification, recovery and restitution of works seized by the Nazis have ensured that America’s art museums are among the most trusted and respected public institutions in the world.14

  • 15 David D’Arcy, ‘Canada under pressure over potential Nazi loot’, The Art Newspaper, 3 April 2013, p. (...)
  • 16 Laura Gilbert, ‘Restitution to get harder in California?’, The Art Newspaper, 4 April 2013, p. 4.

26British museums, led by Sir Nicholas Serota, followed suit and in both countries meticulous provenance research has been undertaken and a number of claims for restitution have been successful: settled by return of objects to earlier owners or their heirs or by the payment of agreed compensation. Interestingly, many of them have turned out to be cases in which the works were not in fact stolen or seized, as envisaged by the AAMD, but sold under pressure. The Stuttgart Staatsgallerie’s recent ‘return’ to Canada of a Virgin and Child, formerly attributed to the Master of Flémalle, righted the wrong done when the picture dealer Max Stern had to sell the painting in order to raise the money needed to buy an exit visa from Nazi Germany for his mother.15 Where compensation has been agreed, it is based on the value of the work now, not on an estimate of the difference between the price actually obtained and the true value then. So this is a generous and comprehensive approach, but it so far applies only to the Nazi period in Europe. Attempts to extend it to victims of the Armenian genocide (1915-18 and 1920-23) have made some progress in California, but it remains to be seen whether the case brought against the J. Paul Getty Museum by the Armenian Apostolic Church for the return of seven manuscript pages from the Zeyt’un Gospels will succeed. The case has already had some impact though: the Getty has begun discussions with the Matenadaran, the Armenian museum that hold the rest of the Zeyt’un Gospels.16

27While a member of the Bizot Group, I had the slightly surreal experience in 2003 of seeing a chorus of nodded agreement from my international museum colleagues to the proposal by Italian museum directors that the Group should take a public stand against the return of the Axum Obelisk to Ethiopia.

Fig. 11.7 The Axum Obelisk (also known as the Roman Stele) in Rome, where it stood in front of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s headquarters until 2005.

28Fortunately, assent evaporated when it was explained not only that Mussolini had taken the obelisk as war booty in 1937 and erected it in Rome as a sign of imperial conquest, but also that at the conclusion of the Second World War Italy had formally agreed its return in 1947. The Bizot Group risked being seen to apply one standard to those of European origin who had suffered loss in the period 1933-45 and quite another to Ethiopia. The obelisk was in fact returned in 2005 and re-erected in 2008.

Fig. 11.8 The Axum Obelisk in Axum.

29Two other relevant examples of return both concern manuscripts. The manuscripts of Icelandic sagas were systematically sought out and collected by antiquarians in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and taken to Denmark for preservation and study. Danish recognition of the central importance of these manuscripts to Icelandic culture was ratified by legislation passed in 1961, which led to a gradual transfer back to Iceland of a significant proportion of the manuscripts over the period 1971-97. Initially contentious this became a focus of scholarly collaboration between the Árni Magnússon Institute in Reykjavik and the Arnamagnean Institute in Copenhagen (which retains a significant collection of saga manuscripts) and a warm point in Danish-Icelandic relations. The consensus built around this return contrasts with the bitter feelings engendered by France’s return of manuscripts looted by a French punitive expedition which raided Korea in 1866 after the execution of a number of French Catholic missionaries.

30Return was first agreed by President Mitterrand during a visit to Seoul in 1993 and was widely believed to be connected with the award of a very large contract to build a high-speed rail link to the French bidder. Mitterrand, overriding the protests of the then director of the Bibliothèque Nationale, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladaurie and the relevant curators, took one manuscript with him: returned according to the Koreans, lent according to the French. Despite a strong campaign, led by curators in the Bibliothèque Nationale, who pointed out that alienation of objects in French public collections is illegal, President Sarkozy decided to honour the agreement. A formal agreement was made between President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea and President Sarkozy of France that the remaining 297 volumes should be returned on the basis of a five year renewable loan. The manuscripts went back to Korea in 2011 and nobody expects that they will return to France, except as occasional reciprocal loans. The National Museum of Korea held an exhibition in the autumn of that year which in the words of their website ‘celebrated the homecoming of uigwe, which were looted from their rightful place… in 1866’.17

Fig. 11.9 Basalt stela with a relief of Antiochus I Epiphanes.

31The issues raised here are of particular importance to museums in Britain since they, like American and French public collections, are responsible for significant numbers of contested objects. Turkey has recently claimed the return of a number of objects from museums around the world, most publicly the Stele of Antiochus I from the British Museum.

32The British Museum has responded by pointing out that the stele was acquired by Leonard Wooley in 1924 with permission from the French authorities in Syria, where the artefact was then stored. It has expressed willingness to discuss a loan for temporary exhibition but concluded its April 2012 press release by stating that ‘The Trustees of the British Museum cannot consent to the transfer of ownership of the stele and firmly believe that it should remain part of the British Museum’s collection where it can be seen in a world context by a global audience’. A consequence of this dispute has been that Turkey now refuses to lend to the British Museum which also has problematic relations with Greece over the Parthenon Marbles, and with Egypt. This is an uncomfortable and potentially damaging situation for one of the world’s greatest museums of the ancient Mediterranean. The problems faced by the British Museum are far from unique.

  • 18 Minutes of the Board of Trustees, 17 April 2003 – 23 June 2005.

33The Victoria and Albert Museum, like all museums with significant international collections, faces similar dilemmas. To start with a little known example, it emerged in the early 2000s that a Spanish monstrance in the V & A’s collection might have been stolen from a monastery in Spain in 1885. Careful research demonstrated that the stolen object and the one in the V & A really were one and the same. The museum faced a problem. Legally the V & A could retain the artefact as the monstrance had been left to the museum by someone who had good title to it under English law. The National Heritage Act 1983, governing the V & A, does not allow it to dispose of objects unless they are duplicate or useless. The monstrance was neither. So it was agreed by the V & A trustees in 2003 that the object should be returned, subject to certain assurances about its care. With the help of the then British ambassador to Spain, an agreement satisfactory to both sides was reached and the monstrance was returned to Spain, to the treasury of Zamora Cathedral, in 2005.18

34Another case that arose during my time at the V & A concerned the Ethiopian treasures taken from the Emperor Theodore after his defeat at the Battle of Magdala in 1868.

  • 19 30 June 1871.
  • 20 Trustees minutes, 20 October 2005.

35W. E. Gladstone, who was Prime Minister at the time, told the House of Commons that ‘he deeply lamented, for the sake of the country, and for the sake of all those concerned, that those articles, to us insignificant, though probably to the Abyssinians sacred and imposing symbols, or at least hallowed by association, were thought fit to be brought away by a British Army’. He went on to say that ‘with that just and kindly spirit which belonged to him, Lord Napier said these articles, whatever the claim of the Army, ought not to be placed among the national treasures, and said they ought to be held in deposit till they could be returned to Abyssinia’.19 The V & A received a letter from the then President of Ethiopia asking for their return. But a reasonably positive response which asked among other things for information about the gold crown returned in the 1930s received no reply. One complication is that as a result of the 1983 Act, the ownership of these objects – which had originally been a government loan – was vested to the V & A into the property of the Trustees.20

Fig. 11.10 Crown, Ethiopia, 1740.

36Towards the end of my time at the V & A, two other issues arose. One concerned a small marble head of a child taken by the archaeologist Sir Charles Wilson from the Sidamara Sarcophagus, a third-century Roman tomb which he excavated in 1882 and which is now in the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul.

Fig. 11.11 Carved marble head of a child, third century, excavated in 1882.

37The head was subsequently left to the V & A by his daughter. It seemed evident to me, my colleagues and the trustees who I consulted that it should be returned. Actually, this had been agreed in principle by the V & A in the 1930s, but never executed. The head does not fit with the collections of the V & A, which has no classical antiquities, and serves no useful purpose there. But it clearly does belong with the sarcophagus from which it was taken. I hope that its return will not be long delayed. It would be particularly unfortunate if it were argued that return would set a dangerous precedent. To suggest that the rectification of an obvious anomaly of this kind would prejudice the case for the retention of the Parthenon marbles or other antiquities would be to accept that there are parallels where there are really none – and so weaken not strengthen the case for retention.

38I well remember the claim made for the return of what were then known as the Elgin Marbles in the early 1980s, the then director David Wilson’s sturdy assertion that they legally and legitimately belonged to the British Museum, and his mixture of pleasure and annoyance at the visit of the then Minster for Culture of Greece, the charismatic Melina Mercouri. Following that episode, there was a period when the Greek government was willing, even eager, to discuss recognition of the British Museum’s legal ownership of the marbles on the condition that the Greek stake in them was also recognised and they were in practice shared between London and Athens. It seems a shame that that offer was not taken up and that it was subsequently withdrawn, just as it is a shame that the risk that any sculpture lent might not be returned was not properly weighed against the risk that a failure to create partnership around the Marbles might eventually make the British Museum’s tenure of them unsustainable.

Fig. 11.12 View of the Acropolis from the interior of the New Acropolis Museum.

39The last case I had to deal with was that of the objects looted from the Summer Palace (and elsewhere) during the European invasions of China in 1860 and 1900.

Fig. 11.13 Chinese Imperial throne, carved lacquer on wood depicting five clawed dragons, Qing dynasty, 1775-80.

  • 21 Scheherazade Daneshkhu, ‘Symbols of amity’, Financial Times, 27/28 April 2013, p. 4.
  • 22 Kathrin Hille, ‘Pinault gives bronze rat and rabbit back to China’, Financial Times, 29 June 2013.

40On a visit to China in 2010 with Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, I suggested that we propose a programme of serious and sustained joint provenance research with our colleagues in the Palace and National Museums of China, so as to ascertain, as far as possible, the history of the objects in the two museums’collections. I was very pleased when, at a joint press conference in Beijing the following day, Neil MacGregor put forward this suggestion on behalf of the British Museum and the V & A. It seemed to me that this would be a good way to begin the process of deciding the long-term future of the looted objects. François-Henri Pinault’s recent decision to return the rat and rabbit bronze heads from the Summer Palace with the statement that ‘the family… strongly believe they belong in their rightful home’, which reflects both the importance of the Chinese market to a luxury goods group like Pinault-Printemps-Redoute and the significance of this gesture to Franco-Chinese relations, confirms that the issue needs to be addressed urgently.21 A report on their return to the National Museum of China quotes a worker surnamed Zhao: ‘As a Chinese I hope all those other antiques scattered throughout the world will be returned to China too, but it will depend on how powerful China becomes’.22

41What has emerged, I hope, is that we now have abundant examples of practice, good and not-so-good, in the field of restitution. Museums in America and Europe have publicly committed themselves to the principle that restitution, or return, can and should be used to right past wrongs. We can see from the numerous examples available to us that engaging with the problems posed by contested objects has had beneficial consequences. Even the Getty Museum, having lived through the trauma of the Italian trial of its former curator of classical antiquities Marion True, has established better relations with the Italian authorities than it had before – although it might have done still better had it responded positively when the issue was first raised.23

42The same standards must apply universally. We cannot have one rule for Scotland or Spain and another for Turkey or Nigeria. We cannot rectify wrongs wrought in Europe and ignore those committed elsewhere. We cannot proclaim that objects belong in the British Museum ‘where they can be seen in a world context by a global audience’ without recognising that Istanbul (like Beijing and Shanghai or Delhi and Mumbai) can also claim to be a ‘world city’ with a ‘global audience’.

43There are real risks in action, not least to the preservation of the objects, as the return of some of the Benin bronzes in the 1950s and the Ethiopian Crown in the 1930s demonstrate. But these risks are not as great as some imagine. The number of genuinely contested objects is small in number and tiny as a proportion of total museum collection. Inaction is riskier still: time is not on the side of those responsible for contested objects. A price, in terms of the unrealised benefits of collaboration, is already being paid. More serious are the risks of future confrontation over objects which could and should be productive of partnership and good feeling. China has not yet asked for the return of looted objects. Mitterrand and Sarkozy’s negotiations with South Korea give us an idea of what might happen if it does. And it will of course, it is just a question of when.

44Proponents of an active approach to the resolution of disagreement around artefacts are often accused by those in the museum profession of naiveté, of not fully understanding the situation. My own conclusion, after a lifetime working in some of the museums most affected by these claims, is that the risks of action are overestimated and the risks of inaction are underestimated. But most important for me is that we owe it to our proud tradition of museums serving the public interest to see where something is wrong and take steps to set it right.

Notes

1 A version of this essay appeared in The Art Newspaper, 250, October 2013, pp. 67-70.

2 Auslan Cramb, ‘Stone of Destiny is fake, claims Alex Salmond’, The Telegraph, 16 June 2008, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/scotland/2136221/Stone-of-Destiny-is-fake-claims-Alex-Salmond.html

3 This suggests that it was similar to St Winifred’s seventh-century throne, the ‘Frith Stool’, in Hexham Abbey, which is made in exactly this way.

4 Raymond Duncan, ‘A lost Scots treasure emerges from hiding Dunkeld Lectern makes capital return’, The Herald, 3 May 1999, http://www.heraldscotland.com/sport/spl/aberdeen/a-lost-scots-treasure-emerges-from-hiding-dunkeld-lectern-makes-capital

5 William Galloway, ‘Notice of an ancient Scottish Lectern of Brass, now in the Parish Church of St Stephen’s, St Albans, Hertfordshire’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 13, 1878-79, pp. 278-301.

6 Mark Tallentyre, ‘Church’s new leader calls for Lindisfarne Gospels’return’, Northern Echo, 12 November 2012, http://www.thenorthernecho.co.uk/news/local/northdurham/10040266.Church_s_new_leader_calls_for_Lindisfarne_Gospels__return/?ref=arc

7 ‘Petition demands return of Lindisfarne Gospels’, The Journal, 16 March 2006, http://www.thejournal.co.uk/news/north-east-news/petition-demands-return

8 Given by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1888.

9 Sunday Herald, 3 February 2008.

10 Frank Urquhart, ‘Lews Castle to house Western Isles museum’, Scotsman, 27 November 2013, http://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/arts/news/lews-castle-to-house-western-isles

11 For the text of this convention see http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=13039&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html

12 http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/+/http:/www.culture.gov.uk/images/publications/GuidanceHumanRemains11Oct.pdf, p. 8.

13 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_federal_agencies

14 ‘Art museums and the identification and restitution of works stolen by the Nazis’, Statement on standards and practices issued by the Association of Art Museum Directors, May 2007, https://aamd.org/sites/default/files/document/Nazi-looted%20art_clean_06_2007.pdf

15 David D’Arcy, ‘Canada under pressure over potential Nazi loot’, The Art Newspaper, 3 April 2013, p. 3.

16 Laura Gilbert, ‘Restitution to get harder in California?’, The Art Newspaper, 4 April 2013, p. 4.

17 http://www.museum.go.kr/program/show/showDetailEng.jsp?menuID=002002002&searchSelect=A.SHOWKOR&pageSize=10&showID=4620

18 Minutes of the Board of Trustees, 17 April 2003 – 23 June 2005.

19 30 June 1871.

20 Trustees minutes, 20 October 2005.

21 Scheherazade Daneshkhu, ‘Symbols of amity’, Financial Times, 27/28 April 2013, p. 4.

22 Kathrin Hille, ‘Pinault gives bronze rat and rabbit back to China’, Financial Times, 29 June 2013.

23 Hugh Eakin, ‘The great giveback’, New York Times, 26 January 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/27/sunday-review/the-great-giveback.html

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 11.1 The Coronation Chair of Edward I, 1296, with the Stone of Destiny.
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/2146/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 12k
Légende Fig. 11.2 King Edward’s Chair, Westminster Abbey, England.
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/2146/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 12k
Légende Fig. 11.3 The lectern at St Alban’s, Copnor.
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/2146/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 8,0k
Légende Fig. 11.4 Great Bed of Ware.
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/2146/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 8,0k
Légende Fig. 11.5 The opening of St Luke’s Gospel in the Lindisfarne Gospels.
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/2146/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 20k
Légende Fig. 11.6 Chess pieces from Uig, Lewis, now at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh.
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/2146/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 16k
Légende Fig. 11.7 The Axum Obelisk (also known as the Roman Stele) in Rome, where it stood in front of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s headquarters until 2005.
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/2146/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 12k
Légende Fig. 11.8 The Axum Obelisk in Axum.
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/2146/img-8.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 16k
Légende Fig. 11.9 Basalt stela with a relief of Antiochus I Epiphanes.
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/2146/img-9.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 12k
Légende Fig. 11.10 Crown, Ethiopia, 1740.
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/2146/img-10.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 8,0k
Légende Fig. 11.11 Carved marble head of a child, third century, excavated in 1882.
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/2146/img-11.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 8,0k
Légende Fig. 11.12 View of the Acropolis from the interior of the New Acropolis Museum.
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/2146/img-12.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 12k
Légende Fig. 11.13 Chinese Imperial throne, carved lacquer on wood depicting five clawed dragons, Qing dynasty, 1775-80.
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/2146/img-13.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 11k

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