Museum Studies at Tufts University

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The Pillaging of Cultural Patrimony: Who Does Art Belong To?

This week, the British Museum announced that it would return eight looted artifacts of antiquity to Iraq’s National Museum. These objects, including a 4,000 year old clay-fired cone inscribed in cuneiform, were illegally taken from the country following the US-led Iraq invasion in 2003. While thousands of priceless objects of Mesopotamian cultural heritage remain missing, the return of these eight signal a positive “win” for cultural materials often subject to global discussions concerning repatriation and restitution.

The debate is complicated, involving questionable permits, unethical archaeological practices, colonial coercion tactics, nation-state laws, and of course, money. Is there ever truly an owner when it comes to great art and if so, who would it be? The one who created it, the one who bought it, the one who found it, or the one who restored it? These imperative questions are just some of many involving issues of repatriation and restitution of cultural materials in museums around the world. From the Bust of Queen Nefertiti (originally from Egypt but currently on display in Berlin) to the thousands of artworks looted under the Third Reich, the controversies surrounding these cultural materials are complex, emotional, and anything but straightforward.

The Elgin Marbles often receive the most public attention in repatriation conversations, probably because museums fear the Marbles’ return to Athens could set the stage for countless other cultural objects to be repatriated too. With an impressive archaeological museum right down the hill from the Acropolis, as well as the equipment, teams, space, and funding available to properly care for and display the Parthenon sculptures, I am in favor of their repatriation. However, many fear that returning a culture’s heritage back to its country of origin possibly means putting the objects at risk of iconoclasm or destruction.

For instance, the Antalya Museum in Turkey has been attempting unsuccessfully to ensure the return of the Sion Treasure, a precious set of silver and gold liturgical objects from Byzantium, currently on display at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. The Turkish government has argued the patens, crosses, and candlesticks in the collection are their rightful property, and that they should be returned. Similar to the Elgin Marbles, their legal acquisition into an American museum provokes further scrutiny. The silver was first discovered buried on a hillside in Kumluca, in southwestern Turkey, where it may have been hidden for protection in response to Arab raids. Due to unauthorized excavations and black market traders, the objects eventually found their way onto American ground illegally.

Despite this, many art historians and museum professionals argue the Sion Treasure should stay in D.C. Dumbarton Oaks spent thousands of dollars restoring the flattened and shattered pieces of the set, the condition in which they arrived at the Museum. There it was lovingly restored to its original brilliance and luster, safeguarded and protected, and displayed for the thousands of tourists who have visited this museum each year.

Should cultural objects reside in a place that is most accessible to the public? The past belongs to all of humanity; is it our right to be able to see and enjoy art objects in the place that is most safe? (Antalya is close to Syria, where a significant amount of art objects have already been lost due to deliberate demolition.) As the cultural theorist Kwame Anthony Appiah has stated, the “rule should be one that protects the object and makes it available to people who will benefit from experiencing it.”[1] When it comes to displaying antiquities with a contentious provenance, does it come down to the “greater good?”

What are your thoughts?

[1] Kwame Anthony Appiah, “Whose Culture is it?,” 4, (


  1. Barbara Silberman

    August 13, 2018 at 12:22 pm

    It would be interesting to know what the annual attendance is at Dumbarton Oaks. It is easy to speculate that attendance would not be as high there, as it would be at museums on the Mall or other places in Washington, DC. If public benefit is the highest priority, moving it elsewhere in DC might be a solution. However, that solution prioritizes American interests. On the other hand, one could argue that the number of international visitors to DC would mitigate the question of public benefit, since it is unlikely that returning it to Antalaya, under the present circumstances, would be in the best interest of an international public.

    In terms of the conservation funds spent to restore the piece, by Dumbarton Oaks, clearly this organization has gone to great lengths to care for it and preserve it.

    Given the illegal means by which the Bliss family acquired the Sion Treasure, perhaps unknowningly, it might be important to show good faith by moving the piece to a museum on the Mall.

    This article raises questions and contributes to the overall discussion of the return of cultural objects. In my mind, there are other legal/ethical considerations beyond care and public benefit. What are the legal cases and the outcomes of other such cases in countries beyond the USA and Turkey? If Sion Treasure is returned to Turkey, does Turkey owe Dumbarton Oaks reimbursement for conservation expenses? What is the importance of present day circumstances?
    (i.e. Syria is close to Antalaya but it won’t always be at war).

    Mr. Appiah’s points regarding protection, care and public benefit are valuable, but must be balanced in light of other questions and circumstances. At the moment, it seems that only Solomon could determine an ethical and balanced decision regarding all objects considered for repatriation.

  2. Hi Barbara,

    Thanks for your thoughts and for taking the time to respond to the Blog!
    I haven’t been able to find specific visitor attendance information for Dumbarton Oaks, but tourism to Washington D.C. is steadily increasing each year. According to Destination DC, which tracks annual visits to the capital, in 2016, DC welcomed about 22 million people. Antalya, on the other hand, saw just over ten million visitors (Source:

    You raise some good questions that this article didn’t consider- if the Sion Treasure were to be returned, financially, should the Antalya Museum reimburse Dumbarton Oaks? Is there a global financial and legal protocol, or is each instance case specific? With each artwork or location in question comes its own set of complex questions that aren’t easily answerable…

    All the best,

  3. I have a different but related question.

    When someone buys a work of art (painting, sculpture etc.) legitimately, they are the new owner and can do what they will with the piece, right?

    But if the work is generally recognized as being a stunning example of, and represents the highest levels of say “Western art”, something like the Mona Lisa or Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, can the new owner withhold the work and not allow anyone else to see (or hear) it? Of course they can, as the ‘owner’. But somehow should there not be a way that the ‘owner’ owes all of us the opportunity to see or hear the work and be compelled to let us.

    Take the Barnes museum in Philadelphia: Albert Barnes assembled a wonderful collection of art including 181 paintings by Renoir, 69 by Cézanne, 59 by Matisse and 46 by Picasso and hundreds more. But his will stipulated that they can only be displayed and viewed in the way he wanted. He created his own works of art, a collage as it were out of other people’s art. Some of the pictures are hung so high up that they virtually can’t be properly seen. No one will ever be able to see those Renoirs except through Barnes’ eyes.

    Something wrong there, no?

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