Sunday, December 9, 2012

European Court to Judge the case of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus?

Two marble statues from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus.
Photograph: The Trustees of the British Museum
Will the British Museum oppose the human rights of citizens of Turkey that now want some ancient artefacts back? Campaigners are going to European court in attempt to repatriate artefacts created for the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, which campaigners want returned to their original site – Bodrum in south-west Turkey.

A Turkish challenge in the European court of human rights will be a test case for the repatriation of art from one nation to another [...]  a dramatic move to reclaim sculptures that once adorned the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus [...]  An Istanbul lawyer, Remzi Kazmaz, told the Observer that a lawsuit will be filed at the European court on 30 January and that 30 lawyers are acting on behalf of the town of Bodrum as well as district and provincial governors, the Turkish ministry of culture and other bodies [...].  Kazmaz said: "We thank the British authorities and the British Museum for accommodating and preserving our historical and cultural heritage for the last years. However, the time has come for these assets to be returned to their place of origin ... Preparations for formal requests are taking place now." [...] Gwendolen Morgan, a human rights lawyer with Bindmans LLP, suggested that "the most likely line of attack" will be a breach by the UK of article 1, 1st protocol of the European convention of human rights, which states: "Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions."
The mausoleum was built in 350BC to mark the burial place of Mausolus, king of Caria. It was a 40-metre-high monument, crowned by a colossal four-horse chariot on a stepped pyramid (of which the head of one of the horses in in the BM). The structure is believed to have collapsed after a medieval earthquake. Some of its sculptures were taken by crusaders to their castle at Bodrum, from where they were recovered in 1846 by the British ambassador at Constantinople and presented to the British Museum. Others were retrieved in the 1850s during site excavations by the museum. In both cases the activities were  carried out with the requisite documents issued by the Ottoman authorities (firmans) which granted permission for the excavation of the site and removal of the material from the site. A petition with 118,000 signatures has been organised and the Strasbourg court will be shown a  documentary film on how Turkey lost its ancient treasure.

Dalya Alberge, 'Turkey turns to human rights law to reclaim British Museum sculptures' Guardian 8 December 2012.


  1. I have argued for years in almost all my articles that withholding the cultural artefacts of a people is a permanent violation of their human right to independent cultural development and practice. In one of the articles I stated: “Westerners must finally accept that the stealing, directly or indirectly, the cultural objects of others, constitutes a violation of their human rights and in the case of funeral objects such as the “vigango”, a violation of their religious rights. The greed of some for exotic art cannot be placed above the human rights of others."

    In another article, I wrote," The withholding of the cultural objects of the Chinese, for whatever reason, is in itself a violation of the human rights of the Chinese to culture and cultural development as foreseen in Article 22 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Moreover, the social and cultural development envisaged in Article 6 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1988) can hardly be achieved if a State or community is deprived of its cultural objects".

    Faced squarely to determine whether withholding cultural object of another nation is a violation of their human rights, a court that is properly and adequately advised, cannot but come to the conclusion that the withholding is a gross violation of a human right. Is cultural development not the great distinction between humans and animals?

  2. I quite agree, but this particular piece illustrates the dangers of rushing too quickly to judge those who removed and those who maintain these works. As the article points out, these statues were removed with the full knowledge and permission of the relevant authorities of the time; in this case at least, it can hardly be characterised as theft, whatever our feelings on the matter now.

    It is also worth noting that Turkey went through periods of considerable instability at the beginning of the twentieth century, and that the statues' removal to the BM may well have saved them for the Turkish people now. Indeed, I have colleagues currently working on Turkish sites who are seeing big problems with looters even today - problems that the authorities lack the resources (and the motivation) to tackle.

    All that being said, I do not think that there is a compelling argument for the BM to retain these articles now. There can be little reasonable doubt that the Turkish authorities have the ability to curate them just as effectively as any western museum.

  3. pjt thank you. This blog deliberately separates the "repatriation" issue from the "stolen/looted artefact" one [one of my other blogs considers the ongoing looting and antiquities trade etc]. Yes, I agree, the BM has legal title, can it now claim though to have absolute moral title when those citizens of the modern nation from whose territory this stuff came would now like back what their grandfathers did not?