Monday, December 15, 2014

Native Americans try to Block Another French Auction of Sacred Artefacts

What's left of Hopi and Navajo
An auction on Monday of sacred masks and objects in France has stirred fresh anger among Native Americans, with representatives of the Navajo people travelling to Paris to try and halt the latest sale. The Eve auction house has 270 Native American, Eskimo and pre-Colombian artefacts going under the hammer and the United States embassy has stepped in, urging a stop to the sale of items cherished by the Navajo and Hopi people. The sale is the fourth since 2013 that the southwestern Hopi people have tried to block of ceremonial masks and headdresses they consider to embody living spirits. All previous legal efforts to halt such auctions have failed, although a US foundation last year bought 21 of the masks at a Paris auction to return them to the Hopi people.
The name of the sellers or the buyers of the masks remain a secret (where are they all coming from?). If America was to implement the 1970 UNESCO Convention properly (with an export licensing procedure for such artefacts) then there would be no problem with stopping the sale of those that left the US after the date it was instituted. The problem is that the US does not want to protect this cultural property in such a way.

Indeed it is rather ironic that when a group of people from precisely the area occupied by these tribes were caught stealing artefacts, including sacred ones and robbing graves to obtain collectables, they got sentences no greater than a few months probation and the authorities that investigated, arrested and charged them received a lot of criticism for the way they did so.  It seems that illegal activities within the US concerning artefacts of precisely this region is not treated with any great seriousness.


Afp, 'Native Americans try to block French auction of sacred artefacts', 14 December 2014.

UPDATE 15th December 2014
Navajo officials won their bid to buy back seven tribal masks at a contested auction of native American artifacts in Paris that netted over a million dollars. Monday’s sale went ahead despite the best efforts by the U.S. government and Senator John McCain to halt it. The objects for sale at the Drouot auction house included sacred masks, colored in pigment, believed to have been used in Navajo wintertime healing ceremonies. The sale — which totaled 929,000 euros ($1.12 million) — also included dozens of Hopi Kachina dolls and several striking Pueblo masks embellished with horse hair, bone and feathers, the origins of which are unclear.[...] The lawyer representing the absent Hopi tribe, Pierre Servan-Schreiber, said the approaches of the Hopis and the Navajos were different — and said the Hopis see the sale as sacrilege. "Hopis were opposed to buying back their artifacts as they did not want to engage in the auction," said Servan-Schreiber.
Thomas Adamson, 'Navajos buy back artifacts at Paris auction', Salt Lake Tribune 15th December 2014.

Monday, December 8, 2014

British Museum Cosying with Russia: "Arrogance, duplicity and defiance with no end"

BM celebrates 'Russian Enlightenment'
Kwame Opoku, 'Arrogance, duplicity and defiance with no end: British Museum loans Parthenon Marble to Russia', reposted on Elginism
The arrogance seeping through the statements of the British Museum in connection with its latest act is glaring and unbearable. The museum arrogates to itself the right and duty to control the narrative of Greek history and culture. It is sending the headless sculpture to enlighten Russians about the glory and grandeur of ancient Greece. The British Museum determines which Greek sculptures are appropriate to fulfil this duty of enlightenment and has even appointed ambassadors to do this. The sculpture of Ilissos is designated “ stone ambassador of the Greek golden age.”. Taking control of the narrative of the history and culture of the Greeks is surely the worst form of cultural imperialism. 

Ancient Maori heads returning from US

This is the largest repatriation of ancestral remains in New Zealand's history. The American Museum of Natural History had a collection of Maori remains, acquired
from the early 1800s up until the 1900s when there was a strong commercial trade and network in indigenous peoples' remains, particularly in Europe and North America. This was fuelled by an intense curiosity with "native" peoples' culture and physical anthropology amongst very wealthy collectors, academic institutions, medical schools and museums, he said. After more than a 100 years abroad, the remains will arrive back in New Zealand this Friday. [...] The remains are made up of:

* 35 Toi moko (preserved Maori tattooed heads) and two tattooed thigh skins from the collection of Portuguese soldier Horatio Gordon Robley. Robley became fascinated with moko during an 1863 visit to New Zealand. He tried unsuccessfully to return his collection to New Zealand in his later life.

* 24 koimi tangata Moriori (Moriori skeletal remains) linked back to New Zealand naturalist Henry Hammersly Travers, the most prolific collector of Chatham Island remains.

* 46 koiwi tangata (Maori skeletal remains) collected from across the North Island. Most are from the private collection of leading Austrian anthropologist Felix von Luschan.
'Ancient Maori heads returning from US' NZ City1 December 2014

Friday, December 5, 2014

The British Museum has just lost the Elgin Marbles argument

The British Museum has moved the statue of Illisos from his plinth in the Duveen Gallery to St. Petersburg for a celebration of Russian art collection at the Hermitage. "This loan is welcome — in that it gives the game away" says Geoffrey Robertson ('The British Museum has just lost the Elgin Marbles argument', Independent Friday 5 December 2014):
This raises two issues: first, why give a propaganda windfall to President Putin at a time when his breaches of international law can only be deterred by sanctions that are beginning to bite? Second, if a part of the Marbles can now been seen for the next two months by visiting St. Petersburg, why should all surviving pieces of the greatest art in world history not be seen, reunited at the Acropolis Museum under a blue attic sky and in the shadow of the Parthenon? [...] the event will be a cultural triumph for the man who a few years ago, closed down the British Council in St. Petersburg and had its Director arrested.[...] In the case of Russia, still fomenting war in eastern Ukraine, isolating sanctions are the only realistic way that Europe can respond in an effort to save lives. In this context, and at this time, the action by Neil MacGregor and his Trustees might seem not merely naïve, but irresponsible.
Neil MacGregor was heard to say as he posed for photographers whilst surveying Illisos in its new location: “It looks much better than it does in London”.
Indeed it does. In London it is located in the Duveen Gallery where half the extant Marbles sit under white light as if in a morgue. This was at the insistence of Lord Duveen, a crooked art dealer who made his money by shady dealings with the Nazis and who insisted in 1938 on scouring some of the friezes, permanently damaging them. If the River God looks so much better at the Hermitage, how much better would he look – along with all the other statues captured by Lord Elgin – back with his counterparts in the New Acropolis Museum?
The Museum, having loaned this piece to Russia now "cannot sensibly or morally refuse the mediation offered by UNESCO, to which the British government has been asked to respond by 31 March next year".

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Parthenon Marbles: Ilissos Goes to Petersburg

Obtrusively-labelled trophy item in BM (BBC)
The British Museum has loaned one of its ripped-off Parthenon Marbles statues to Russia.
A headless depiction of the river god [sic - personification not god] Ilissos will go on display in St Petersburg's State Hermitage Museum until mid-January. [...] The museum director, Neil McGregor, said: "The British Museum is a museum of the world, for the world and nothing demonstrates this more than the loan of a Parthenon sculpture to the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg to celebrate its 250th anniversary." In a blog for the museum's website, he wrote that the British Museum had opened its doors in 1759 and the Hermitage just five years later - making them "almost twins... the first great museums of the European Enlightenment". The British Museum was today "the most generous lender in the world", he said, "making a reality of the Enlightenment ideal that the greatest things in the world should be seen and studied, shared and enjoyed by as many people in as many countries as possible". "The trustees have always believed that such loans must continue between museums in spite of political disagreements between governments."
Tell that to the people of Ukraine and Crimea this winter. This can be interpreted as nothing but a huge snub directed at Greece by the British Museum. Of all the pieces that could have been chosen to represent the Enlightenment, there was no reason to choose precisely one of these pieces - and especially at this time. What's the matter, could not find anything from a Hellenistic town in Crimea that the Russians have not already got? It is interesting to note that this loan was not announced until the looted sculpture was actually in Russia. Go on Greece, make a bid to get it back from Putin, maybe he'll agree to give the UK a poke in the eye over sanctions (I bet the actual loan agreement has some interesting small print to cover such an eventuality).

By the way, Catherine the Great's keep-up-with-the-Enlightenment kunstkabinett in the Small Hermitage was a private collection in 1759. The museum only "opened its doors" by Nicholas I in 1852, a century later. McGregor is making up history here.

 BBC 'Elgin Marbles: British Museum loans statue to Russia' BBS 5 December 2014.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Parthenon Marbles: The Adair Letter

In the light of the recent stressing by the BM Director that the Marbles were legally removed from Greece, the Elginism website has raised the question of the Adair letter of July 31st 1811 (see Theodore Theodorou, 'Robert Adair's letter to Lord Elgin') which certainly would weaken the BM case.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Alert - Fake ICOM certificates

Alert - Fake ICOM certificates
There are fraudulent websites which imitate ICOM institutional website. These websites  are not operated by or authorised by ICOM.  In return for a fee, some websites claim to provide certificates of authenticity permitting the unrestricted import and export of African cultural heritage. The certificate supposedly releases the bearer from requiring any other documents such as the title deed, export certificate and license, certificate of expertise, certificate of authenticity, etc. ICOM does not provide certificates of expertise, origin or authenticity. These certificates must be obtained from the relevant national Government authorities. Many people have already fallen victim to the scam, particularly concerning Cameroon and Central Africa. Please exercise vigilance when taking part in transactions involving cultural heritage property over the Internet.  Contact

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Bolivian Ekeko Returns Home

The office of the Evo Morales, the Bolivian President ahas just announced to a press conference the return to that country  by Switzerland of a  pre-Columbian statuette representing Ekeko, the Andean god of abundance and prosperity, dating back to the 2nd century B.C. taken from the country in 1858 by explorer Johann Jakob Tschudi. Bolivia has declared a diplomatic crusade for the return of items of national heritage looted over the years.
The statue, according to Morales, was stolen from Bolivia in 1858, when a Swiss diplomat visited Tiahuanaco and "unfortunately" took it with him after getting the Indians there to drink "a liquor called cognac." In 1929 the diplomat's grandchildren sold the Ekeko to a museum in Bern, which has now returned it to Bolivia after a year of negotiations between Bolivian and Swiss authorities. [...] "During the colonial period, our natural resources were constantly being sacked," Morales said, adding that "thousands" of the nation's cultural treasures are now "in the hands of European countries, the United States and England." "It's time they returned our goods... through bilateral diplomatic relations and not under pressure," the president said, urging those countries to return objects of Bolivia's heritage "in the spirit of friendship and brotherhood." 
The Vice Minister for Bolivian Decolonization, Felix Cardenas, explained the need to make an inventory of all examples outside Bolivia in order to recover them. “We ask Bolivians living abroad to help us identify our heirlooms and that way start to arrange their possible return”, explained Cardenas. Cardenas said that the Chachapuma, a large Bolivian effigy is in Germany, and other pieces have been found in France.

 Swiss return to Bolivia pre-Columbian figurine looted in 1858  Vida Latina November 11, 2014 

In Berne, just an exhibited geegaw, but not to all viewers...

Monday, November 17, 2014

Montezuma headdress goes into storage

The quetzal-feather headdress, or penacho, supposedly once worn by Montezuma somehow ended up in the collection of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand II von Tyrol and has been in Austria since 1596. It is currently housed at Vienna’s Weltmuseum. On November 2, the museum closed its doors in order to undertake a two-year rebranding. Its vast collection will now be placed into vaults. Now, as a beloved part of Mexico’s heritage disappears from view for an uncertain period of time, it is a perfect time to figure out how to get the penacho back home.
According to Gerard van Bussel, curator of Montezuma’s penacho, 5 percent of the museum’s attendees are Mexican nationals--who don’t have to pay admission. “It’s our little gift to Mexico,” Bussel says. Many Mexicans are surprised to learn that the penacho exhibited at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City is a 1940 replica paid by President Abelardo Rodríguez. The president had seen the original during a state visit to Vienna and wanted Mexico to have a copy. “One can feel more the spiritual force seeing it here than the replica,” says Guillermo García Perez, a retired mathematics teacher who made the journey with his family. “I think about the greatness of the Mexica, the Aztecs. It should be taken to Mexico. It’s a treasure.” The reasons why it hasn’t been taken to Mexico are many. In a two-year joint study by Austria and Mexico between 2010 and 2012, it was concluded that moving the headdress could cause irreparable damage. 
Estimates of its value range as high as $50 million. 


Milady Nazir, 'A symbol of Mexico’s pre-colonial grandeur fades out of sight', Fox News November 14, 2014

Friday, November 14, 2014

Greek Cultural Reply to British Museum Rudeness

This response to British Museum Director Neil MacGregor’s recent comments on the Parthenon Marbles in the Times is very well-phrased and argued, I reproduce it in full from the Elginism blog: with apologies but I think such a text should be as widely seen as possible. I think most readers will conclude that it pretty conclusively demolishes the BM's self-serving arguments.

Greek Ministry of Culture: Response to comments made by Neil MacGregor in an interview in the Times on 7th November
1. UNESCO, which has invited the Greek and the British Governments to take part in a mediation process to resolve the issue, is an intergovernmental organization. However, the Trustees of the British Museum are not part of the British government. It is the Trustees and not the Government that own the great cultural collections of the country.
UNESCO is indeed an intergovernmental organization. It is hard to believe that a Government would discuss an issue it does not have competence on. It is hard to believe that if there were political will from the UK for the return of the Marbles to Greece the BM would resist this will. Negotiations conducted all those years with the good services of UNESCO were between the two States (Greece and the UK). Yet, a BM representative was always there. In any case the links at all levels between the BM and the UK Government are well known. Returns have already been effected in Britain on the basis of changes in the law such as the enactment of the Human Tissue Act 2004. This Act enabled the return of human remains located in UK museum collections (under the same status as the one applying to the Marbles). Those were unethically removed from Australian Aboriginals, New Zealand Maori and Native Americans and were returned to their countries of origin. In this light persistence in formalities can only be used as an evasion of the real issue.

2. The Marbles will give “maximum public benefit” by staying in London rather than going to a new museum in Athens.
“Maximum public benefit” should not be seen in the light of the BM’s interests alone. This patronization of ‘benefit’ makes one think that the BM has still not shaken off the mentality of colonization. It is prime time for the BM to consider its humanistic role, depart from issues of ‘ownership’ and ‘property’ and focus on the actual benefit of the antiquity itself, of the visitors, researchers, archaeologists, historians and all those who have an interest to see and study the Marbles as a whole. The issue is not which Museum is better to accommodate the Marbles. We do not run a beauty contest. It is all about where the Marbles and the values they incorporate can best be exhibited and appreciated respectively.

3. In Athens they could only be part of an Athenian story for the Parthenon is not even a Greek monument. It is an Athenian monument. Many other Greek cities and islands protested bitterly about the money taken from them to build this in Athens.
One should bear in mind that the BM as such is mainly the beneficiary par excellence of British colonization. Therefore when one engages in accusations one also has to look into one’s own injustices of the past.

4. 30% of the sculptures are in Athens and 30% are in London. Quite a lot of them no longer exist. There is no possibility of recovering an artistic entity.
It is indeed true that parts of the Marbles are missing. One should first think of the tremendous damage done to the Marbles when they were removed by Elgin from the Acropolis site and shipped to Britain. Mentor (the ship that carried them) sank and the Marbles remained in the sea and some of them on the beach under stones and seaweed for two whole years. The Marbles also suffered from being transferred by various vessels to ports in England. Also in 1937 for a whole year and a half (while in the BM) the Marbles’ surface was scraped in order for them to become white and lose their patina.
The fact that parts are missing cannot be used as an argument for not reunifying the existing parts. Is the “either all or nothing argument” a new tendency in archaeology? In this case the BM should eliminate all incomplete artifacts in its collection.

5. The marbles were not illegally removed by Elgin. He had to surrender the document allowing him to take the marbles as he exported them. Everything was done publicly.
One wonders which records the BM refers to. Nothing was done legally, let alone ethically. Elgin was not authorized to remove the Marbles. He acted without official authorization as the Sultan was the only authority (and the sole owner of all important antiquities within his jurisdiction according to the law of his time), which could issue such a document (firman). Elgin had in his hand an amicable letter of a low ranking Turkish official, which gave access to his team for drawing casts and take only a few stones found on the ground. Even this document expressly referred to the fact that no damage should occur to the monument itself. Elgin used bribes in order to complete his mission and jagged the Marbles from the Temple using saws to remove the surface from the rest of the architectural part.

6. The Trustees have always been ready for discussions with the Greek government but the latter will not recognize the trustees as the legal owners, so conversations are difficult.
References to the matter of ownership are misleading and are used to deflect the discussion from the actual issue. The issue is not about ownership but about where the Marbles can be best exhibited for the sake of humanity. Although the Museum claims that the Marbles belong to everyone, in fact the Museum implies that they belong to it. UNESCO has officially invited in August 2013 the UK Government (including the Museum) to enter into mediation with Greece for the resolution of the matter. The UK can place the issue of ownership on the table of mediation if it so wishes. The UK has still not even replied. One wonders how much goodwill can be found in this indifferent stance. Replying to an invitation of an internationally renowned forum is not only basic good manners but adhering to the principle of peaceful settlement of disputes. This makes anyone think that it is not conversations that are difficult; only parties can be difficult.

7. These sculptures do belong to everyone. Letting them be seen in different places and not only in Athens is important.
That is indeed true. They incorporate the values of classical Athens and Greek identity and as such form part of the world heritage. The issue though is where they can be best exhibited for the sake of humanity. Exhibiting them in different places conveys half of the information (if not the wrong information) of the values they carry. How can an artifact (any artifact) broken in pieces be properly assessed, valued and interpreted, if parts of it are seen separate instead of as a whole? This is especially so if something was conceived, created and exhibited as a whole in its original context. In the case at issue it is not only the antiquity that is split apart but also the fact that it is not found in its original context. This argument defies any logic and is there only to serve the purposes of the BM. It is even more weird that the argument is used by a leading institution in the museum world to serve its own purposes when this argument is unknown in the area of cultural property law and relevant international treaties. It is a long and well-established principle that antiquities should be preserved and exhibited (even in situ where this is possible) as a whole respecting their integrity, whilst when broken this constitutes a crime. How does this act (or any argumentation to its favour) differ from the vandal acts in Afghanistan or Syria?
The point about the wording of the (conveniently lost) 'firman' is important, on it hinges the whole legality argument, and cutting through the idiotic, 'ev'rybody saw it happen and di'nt stop it, so must've been legal then' argument better suited to the BM's partner metal detectorists than a responsible flagship cultural institution, but then do not both very well illustrate the depths to which 'British culture' is sinking? Note the subtle dig in point six referring to the actual aim of the existence of UNESCO - building peace in men's minds. That's not exactly what the BM is up to at the moment.  I also appreciate the point made about the all-or-nothing approach which also annoyed me, the response to that one from Athens is a cracker. I think  that round goes to Athens, back to you BM Trustees.... what nonsense arguments will you come up with next? 

Friday, November 7, 2014

Tlingit Totem Pole to be Returned

A Tlingit Totem Pole totem pole stolen from Takjik’aan (Tuxecan), Prince of Wales Island decades ago  seems to have been taken from the site by actor John Barrymore in May 1931 during one of several yachting trips to Southeast Alaska, sawing it off at ground-level, leaving just a stump.
  Barrymore died in 1942, and the totem pole was bought by Vincent Price (" who had a degree in fine art and an interest in “primitive art”....") . It was then deposited in three pieces  in  the Honolulu Academy (later Museum) of Art,
Though the pole has been sawed down, sawed into pieces, cemented and bolted together, altered, showed off and hidden away [...]  the process to return the pole home to Tuxecan is underway. The Klawock Cooperative Association has been in contact with Honolulu Museum of Art Director Stephan Yost about repatriation of the pole — the board of directors voted to repatriate to Klawock and the pole is being prepared for shipment. 
Melissa Griffiths, 'Stolen totem pole comes home', November 5, 2014

UPDATE 24th October 2015

Yaxchilan Lintel 24

British Museum director Neil McGregor

Late Classic Maya limestone carving from Yaxchilan, in modern Chiapas, Mexico (" A masterpiece of Maya art"). Wikipedia, friend of Universal Museums says:
"Lintel 24 was found in its original context alongside Lintels 25 and 26 in Structure 23 of Yaxchilan. Alfred Maudslay had the lintel cut from the ceiling of a side entrance in 1882 and shipped to Great Britain where it remains today in the British Museum of London"
This lintel would be seen better in the company of Lindow Man and the Hamilton vases, or the other sculptures from the same building and the contemporary (and preceding and succeeding) buildings on the same site? What about their regional context?What use is it sawn off, ripped out and taken away from all of that isolated as a lone trophy piece of sawn-off stone in amongst a hose of other pieces of sawn-off, ripped out and carted off pieces of trophy stone?

British Museum: "the Parthenon Marbles aren’t Greek"

Richard Morrison, 'British Museum director: the Elgin Marbles aren’t Greek', The Times November 07, 2014
It’s the belief of MacGregor and his trustees (who, he points out, include “two Nobel prize-winners and distinguished people from all over the world”) that the Marbles will give “maximum public benefit” by staying in London, rather than going to a new museum in Athens. “From its beginning 250 years ago, the point of the BM was gathering together objects in one place to tell narratives about the world,” he says. “When the Parthenon Sculptures came to London it was the first time that they could be seen at eye-level. They stopped being architectural details in the Parthenon and became sculptures in their own right. They became part of a different story — of what the human body has meant in world culture. In Athens they would be part of an exclusively Athenian story.” Athenian? “Yes. It’s not even a Greek monument. Many other Greek cities and islands protested bitterly about the money taken from them to build this in Athens.” Surely one of the strongest Greek arguments is that all the Parthenon Sculptures should be reunited — and the obvious place for that to happen is as close to the Parthenon as possible. “Well, about 30 per cent of the Sculptures are in Athens and 30 per cent are here,” MacGregor counters. “You don’t have to be very mathematical to see that quite a lot of them no longer exist. So there’s no possibility of recovering an artistic entity and even less of putting them back in the ruined building from which they came. Indeed, the Greek authorities have continued Lord Elgin’s work of removing sculptures for exactly the same reason: to protect them and to study them.”
The Parthenon is not a Greek monument because it was "built in Athens"? So it is displayed in the British (London) Museum's Department of Greek, Roman and Athenian antiquities? That's next to the Museum's 'Department of Halicarnassan and Carian Antiquities' I suppose. What nonsense is this?

I guess his other one is a Two Wrongs Argument, the Ghent Altarpiece "should not be displayed ever again as a whole" because one of the panels is missing. Dachau can now be dismantled because some noxious jerk walked off with the Arbeit Macht Frei gate. It is a really dodgy argument that no work of art or monument should be protected from dismemberment unless we have all the pieces. The Parthenon Marbles dispute is descending even further into the depths, being already the lowpoint of British Museology and the heritage debate.

Vignette: "It's broken so no need to return it".

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Amal Alamuddin and the Parthenon Marbles

Here is a selection of the news items about the involvement of a 'celebrity' lawyer (married to a Hollywood star) in the Parthenon Marbles dispute with the British Museum:

2nd October: 'George Clooney's fiance, Amal Alamuddin to visit Greek Prime minister about the Parthenon Sculptures', Marbles Reunited.

3rd October: 'Amal Alamuddin assumes the reunification of the Parthenon Marbles' Greek Reporter.

9th October: 'George Clooney's wife Amal Alamuddin set to advise Greece on Parthenon Marbles' New York Daily News.

12th October: 'How Amal Alamuddin Clooney became involved in the Parthenon Marbles case' Ekathimerini

13th Oct 2014: 'Parthenon marbles meet Hollywood as Amal Alamuddin Clooney advises Greece' The Guardian.

14th October: 'Amal Alamuddin, now Amal Clooney, in Greece for Parthenon Marbles bid', CBS News

"The Elgin Marbles belong in Britain, Mrs Clooney"

There has been a sudden scramble of attention in the international media over the Parthenon Marbles over the past few days which is directly related to the involvement of 'celebrity' British-Lebanese human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin in the discussions. It seems we need more celebrities in the struggle with the looters. Anyway one of the less salubrious 'contributions to the discussion' is a nasty piece of orientalist chest-thumping chauvinism from the Telegraph (Jeremy Paxman,  "The Elgin Marbles belong in Britain, Mrs Clooney") with the patronising leader: "Had Lord Elgin not plundered these works of art, they might have ended up in the footings of an Athens kebab stand", reflecting Paxman's attitudes towards the Greeks and kebabs. British Museum, can you do no betteer than that? 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Lord Elgin was a hero who saved the marbles for the world

In a lengthy and closely-argued text, Dominic Selwood explains why he thinks: 'Amal Clooney should back off. Lord Elgin was a hero who saved the marbles for the world', Telegraph October 21st, 2014.

If the Greek government is about to launch a new media PR campaign for the return of the marbles, it is time to put aside the wilful misinformation and cheap innuendo that masks the genuine debt that everyone — most especially Greece — owes to Lord Elgin. The world needs to stop whipping him, and start thanking him for his Herculean efforts, contra mundum, in saving these wonderful sculptures for everyone.
... and if he was a heritage hero, does that mean they should never go back? Why?

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Return of Parthenon Marbles Would 'Ruin' Museums, Warns Historian

Sir John Boardman, emeritus Oxford professor of classical archaeology and art, warns that an attempt by Geoffrey Robertson QC and Amal Alamuddin, George Clooney’s new wife, to help secure the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece could result in an "appalling precedent", resulting in museums worldwide "having to give up artefacts they had held for decades".
Geoffrey Robertson QC and Amal Alamuddin, George Clooney’s new wife, are flying to Athens next week for a three-day visit to hold a series of talks with figures including Antonis Samaras, the country’s prime minister, and Konstantinos Tasoulas, the culture minister.[...] Sir John said the move could threaten other items in the British Museum as well as the Louvre, which is “packed” with artifacts from Turkey, and museums in Berlin which also hold items from Turkey. “You would get all mixed up with nationalities and who owned what when,” he said.
Well, fancy that, the colonialists having to think about who owns the stuff they've walked off with.

Edward Malnick, 'Return of Elgin (sic) Marbles would 'ruin' museums, warns leading historian', Telegraph 10 Oct 2014.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Atwood on the Head of Olokun

Head of Olokun
Roger Atwood writes on a lost, and perhaps now found, ancient Nigerian masterpiece, the Head of Olokun
see also Martin Bailey, 'Is the Olokun Head the real thing?', Art Newspaper Issue 213, May 2010: 04 May 2010

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Problems Surrounding Return of Human Remains

A UN conference has called for an intensified effort to achieve the repatriation of Indigenous ceremonial objects and human remains being held in foreign museums and other institutions. This is a key outcome of the inaugural World Conference on Indigenous Peoples that has just ended at UN headquarters in New York. The article focuses on Australian aboriginal remains and objects
Many European museums and galleries have held Australian Indigenous remains without even looking at them for decades [...] it was only when Indigenous communities began asking for the remains be returned, that their scientific value was suddenly deemed paramount. "Most collections that have been assembled overseas have never really been studied. That's the irony anyway. It's the irony from [the point of view of] anthropology. It might not actually be from the Aboriginal point of view. I can accept that. But often when institutions in Europe have been asked to return remains, they say, 'But these haven't been studied.' They've only had them [for] a hundred years and they've still not studied them and all of a sudden they've found that they're very valuable. Now, they're reluctant to give them back because now they want to study them."
Over the years, Australia has emerged as a global leader in the repatriation of Indigenous remains.
 Kristina Kukolja, 'UN conference calls for return of Indigenous remains', World News Radio 1 Oct 2014

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Iznik Tile Panel in Louvre

Turkey, stolen heritage: Iznik tile panel: Stolen by a dentist, replaced with fakes, now in Louvre Museum.

"In 1892, a French dentist then living in Istanbul, Albert Sorlin Dorigny, somehow got permission from the Sultan to restore various tiles in Istanbul. In context of this process, one of the panels was taken to France by Dorigny and he brought fakes to Istanbul. In other words, Dorigny stole original 60 tiles and replaced them with the fakes. Now in 21th century, although truth revealed and this theft case has been enlightened, famous Louvre Museum still holds these stolen objects captivated. We want captivated cultural objects return to their homes".
See related stories too.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Two Alaska Native Artefacts Returned after Auction Purchased

"These are not just material objects. They
are associated with our ancestors, and their
return is like an ancestor is coming back home
Rosita Worl, president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute. 

Kathy Dye / Sealaska Heritage Institute
Two Alaska Native artifacts  -- a small wooden mask believed to have been carved by members of the Chugach tribe, and part of a wooden box believed to be from the Chilkat Tlingit tribe -- have been returned to two native organizations after being purchased at a Paris auction house. The Sealaska Heritage Institute* had asked the unnamed Paris auction house to stop the auction when the box piece was discovered on the company's sale list, along with artifacts from the American Southwest. The auction house refused.

There was then some behind-the-scenes intervention from the U.S. State Department and a purchase by the Los Angeles-based nonprofit foundation the Annenberg Foundation. Using foundation money, the group was able to anonymously purchase 25 of the 27 Native American artifacts for sale at the 2013 auction. Both the box piece and the Chugach mask were returned to Alaska in August. The remaining 23 items are from the Hopi and San Carlos Apache tribes of Arizona and will be returned to tribe members there soon.
the small wooden slab was once part of box that was made by steaming and bending wood. It would have likely been used to transport sacred objects belonging to one of the Chilkat clans that now populate the Haines and Klukwan area. [...] The Chilkat box piece is believed to have been made in the early- to mid-1800s, a time during which [...] Alaska Native artifacts were heavily, and illegally, collected. "It could have been taken from a grave," Worl said. "Often, the box would be left at a shaman's grave until a spirit came as a successor, but they were often stolen from those grave sites."
The Chilkat box-piece will be stored at the Sealaska Heritage Institute in Juneau. The Chugach mask has been given to Chugach Alaska Corp.

Sean Doogan, 'Two Alaska Native artifacts return home after clandestine auction bid by nonprofit', Alaska Dispatch September 3, 2014

* The Sealaska Heritage Institute is a nonprofit cultural arm of Sealaska Corp., a Southeast Alaska Native corporation

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Repatriation claims by Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom

There is an opinion-piece by Fredrick Nsibambi ('Should Britain return the artifacts allegedly stolen from Bunyoro in the 1890s?', New Vision (Uganda daily) Aug 27, 2014) about repatriation claims by Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom (Uganda) demanding for the return of artefacts allegedly stolen by the British colonial masters.
One of the key objects in question is the 9-legged royal stool/throne on which all current King of Bunyoro’s predecessors sat, up to King Kabalega, who was exiled by the British for resisting colonialism in 1899. The royal throne is currently kept at Oxford in Pitt Rivers Museum in England. According to some people, the current King was not properly installed because he did not sit on the same throne as his predecessors. Therefore, there is a general belief that the return of the missing throne would be a significant political victory for not only in what was once the greatest and richest kingdom but also for Africa as a continent. Besides the stool, Bunyoro says that during the colonial era, almost 300 artefacts were taken – with or without her consent. The kingdom's current Monarch, Solomon Gafabusa Iguru I, has spent the better part of his reign campaigning for their return. The kingdom has taken legal action against the British government for theft and destruction of property.
He presents the pros and cons of return, mainly using the usual 'Universal Museum' arguments.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Jonathan Jones, 'The Parthenon marbles are the world's most beautiful art – and that's why we should give them back'

Jonathan Jones, 'The Parthenon marbles are the world's most beautiful art – and that's why we should give them back' Guardian Monday 18 August 2014

"The way the Elgin Marbles debate has turned art into an ideological plaything is a terrible distraction from looking at the bloody things".
The sad truth is that in the British Museum, the Parthenon sculptures are not experienced at their best. For one thing, they're shown in a grey, neoclassical hall whose stone walls don't contrast enough with these stone artworks – it is a deathly space that mutes the greatest Greek art instead of illuminating it. So if the British Museum wants to keep these masterpieces it needs to find the money to totally redisplay them in a modern way. Or, it could give them to Greece, which has already built a superb modern museum to do just that.

Native American Tribe Wants a German Museum to Return Native American Scalps

In a story mirroring the Hopi masks controversy, another request for repatriation of cultural property held in foreign collections highlights the problems of applying internal US laws such as that which governs the repatriation of human remains - The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) to external cases without an MOU.Melissa Eddy reports for the New York Times, the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of the Chippewa Indians have sent a letter to the Karl Kay Museum in Radebuel, Germany,  demanding that the museum return 17 human scalps (four of which are on display) in order that the tribe could give those remains a proper burial. The German museum has so far refused the Chippewa:

In the guidelines drawn up last year by the German Museums Association recommending how to care for human remains, a reference to scalps from “the indigenous people of America” who “fashioned trophies from the heads of their killed enemies” is listed under exceptions to human remains acquired in a context of injustice. “Killing one’s enemy and making use of his physical remains were socially accepted acts in those cultures,” the recommendations say. Though public sentiment in the United States has slowly shifted since the 1960s toward supporting the right of indigenous peoples, especially the American Indians, to reclaim and define their own cultures from museums and institutions, no such transformation has taken place in Germany.
The German curators insist that artefacts made out of  human remains, like any other museum objects, are important as historical items worthy of preservation and protection.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Wampum in Museum Collections: Tracking Broken Chains of Custody

One of the forthcoming Penn Cultural Centres' 'Brown Bag Lectures' ('bring a lunch), on October 2, 2014 will be delivered by Margaret Bruchac, University of Pennsylvania on: Wampum in Museum Collections: Tracking Broken Chains of Custody

 Wampum belts (constructed of light and dark shell beads woven together with twine and leather) have long been used by Native American peoples to encode and facilitate inter-tribal and international relations. Federal legislation and national museums have identified wampum belts as iconic and inalienable items of cultural patrimony, and Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) tribal leaders have been actively seeking to repatriate wampum for more than a century. Yet, a number of wampum belts in museum collections are classified as only vaguely identifiable objects lacking in provenance. This talk highlights recent research that recovered detailed provenance data on several supposedly mysterious wampum belts. A five diamond wampum belt recording ongoing relations among the Six Nations and the Catholic Mohawk at Kanesatake was once secreted among the collections at the Museum of the American Indian, and recently surfaced for sale at a Sotheby’s auction. A path wampum belt currently housed at the Penn Museum, originally intended to facilitate peaceful relations among the Haudenosaunee, Mohican, and missionaries in the 1790s, was acquired and sold by a collector. In each case, collectors and curators represented these significant indigenous cultural records as though they were merely valuable antiquities, abstract art objects, and relics of vanished Indians. These false representations concealed historical origins even though much of the key data was preserved in museum archives and correspondence. Through restorative research, Bruchac successfully tracked the movements of each of these belts through the hands of various collectors, while charting the imposition of values that obscured indigenous meaning. These objects were also caught up in the emergence of a lucrative market in American Indian art that relied upon the physical alienation of iconic artifacts and the scholarly re-classification of tribal patrimony as privately-owned "art." This research project critiques the pervasive influence of museum fakelore, and illustrates the importance of combining archival research with Indigenous consultation to recover far more coherent understandings of colonial events and Indigenous objects, past and present.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Honglujing Stele

A Chinese organisation has appealed to Japan's Emperor Akihito to return a 1,300 year-old stele taken from China over a century ago. The Honglujing Stele  dates to the period between the turn of the 7/8th centuries AD to the first third of the tenth century AD. It was taken from Lushun city (Liaoning province), some time between October 1906 and April 1908, after the Russo-Japanese War. The stone is  3 meters wide, 1.8 meters tall and two meters thick was the only stele dating to the Tang Dynasty (618-907) from Manchuria. Its historical importance derives from the inscription in Chinese characters it bears, recording that the first king of the northeast Asian Bohai (Balhai) kingdom was given his title by a Chinese emperor from the Tang Dynasty. The identification of the nature of this entity is disputed (considered Chinese, Korean, or independent, depending on the nationality of the researcher, while  Russian and Japanese scholars classify it as an independent  Mohe state). The stele is currently located in the Japanese Imperial Palace.

Old photo of Honglujing Stele (Asia One)

Old photo, Stele relocated?

Ink impression of inscription (composite image)
Liaoning (formerly: Fengtien) province is now in China (most recently since 1907) and the Chinese have been asking the Japanese to return the stele, together with other antiquities for some time. According to Einhorn:
Japanese troops went on a rampage in the mainland in the 50 years between China’s defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War and the end of the Second World War, with Japan stealing some 3.6 million relics.
The demand comes with relations between Beijing and Tokyo at their lowest point in years, with a territorial row over islands in the East China Sea rumbling against a backdrop of disputes over history.


'1,300-year-old stele eyed by Chinese, Japanese archaeologists' The Peoples Daily, 1 June 2006

Bruce Einhorn, 'China Presses for Japan's Return of Plundered Antiquities' Bloomburg Business August 12, 2014

AFP 'Chinese group appeals to Japan's emperor over artefact', Channel News Asia 12 Aug 2014 and Asia One  Aug 12th 2014.

Korean Stele Returned by Japan

Pukkwan Victory Monument
A recent article (AFP 'Chinese group appeals to Japan's emperor over artefact', Channel News Asia 12 Aug 2014) mentions:
"Japan in 2005 gave South Korea a stele commemorating Korean victories against invading Japanese forces in the late 16th century that had been taken to Japan in the early 20th century. Seoul later sent it to North Korea for return to its original location".
This was the Pukkwan Victory Monument (often referred to as the Bukgwan Victory Monument in South Korea). This was "a stone stele written in Classical Chinese commemorating a series of Korean military victories between 1592 and 1594 against the invading army of Japan during the Imjin War. It was subsequently taken to Japan during the Japanese occupation of Korea during the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. It was eventually discovered on the grounds of Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, prompting a Korean outcry that it be returned. In a ceremony on 12 October 2005, it was turned over to officials from South Korea, who returned it to its original location, which is now in North Korea". The monument is now in Kimch'aek (formerly Sŏngjin) in North Hamgyong Province. (Wikipedia).

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Not About Culture but Money

There are a series of objections to the proposed sale by the Borough of Northampton of the ancient statue of Sekhemka from the town's museum. The statue was donated 'in perpetuity' to the Northampton Museum over 100 years ago  by Lord Northampton’s family. The museum's governing body however seems determined to betray the trust placed in it and want to sell the statue. It is reported that a deal has been reached whereby the present Lord Northampton will receive 45% of the proceeds of the sale, with Northampton Borough Council receiving 55% .
Sniping xenophobe collectors and their lobbyists object to Egypt's new Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh El-Damati  expressing disapproval of the sale They miss the point entirely. The Minister's statement indicates an extreme shift of policy.
El-Damati has denounced the decision made by Northampton Museum, claiming that it is against the values of museums world wide as they should act as vessels to spread culture, rather than businesses searching for a profit.
This is totally at odds with the policies publicly expressed by previous Ministers which demanded iconic objects and others be returned to Egypt. Collectors claim that antiquity collecting is all about spreading culture, but their notion of that is through private possession of trophy objects like this one, which is why on their websites and forums they simply ignore this important shift.
Mr El-Damati has called on the International Council of Museums (ICOM) to stop the sale on the grounds that it goes against the council’s ethics. Ali Ahmed, head of the ministry’s stolen antiquities section, said the Sekhemka statue was given to Northampton Museum at the end of the 18th century by an Ottoman sultan and has been a part of the museum’s collection on display since 1849. But a spokeswoman for Northampton Borough Council said Eqypt had no right to reclaim the statue and this had been confirmed after an investigation. The spokeswoman said: “We contacted the Egyptian Government two years ago regarding our plans to sell Sekhemka. “According to UNESCO’s 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, Egypt has no right to claim the recovery of the statue, as the statue left Egypt before this convention was put in place and this was confirmed by the Egyptian Government on June 15.”
I doubt it was "given" by an Ottoman sultan - no documentation of such a gift has ever been produced. The spokeswoman is simply wrong. There is nothing exclusive about the 1970 UNESCO Convention. Of course Egypt has a right to ask for the return of something taken out of Egypt in the past which is no longer wanted by those who hold it in trust. What she means is there is nothing in the Convention (or international or local law) which would oblige Northampton to comply. That is a totally different matter. If Northampton do not want to continue to look after this statue, and no other public collection in the UK will take on this role, then it should be offered back to Egypt.  
Sources: 'Egyptian government launches last-minute legal bid to stop sale of Sekhemka by Northampton Borough Council', Northampton Chronicle and Echo  7th July 2014.
'Egypt threatens legal action to stop UK museum selling ancient statue', Al Arabiya News Tuesday, 8 July 2014.
Northampton residents have formed a Save Sekhemka Action Group. Sign the petition now, just two days left to convince the Borough's footwear philistines they are doing wrong.  To Councillor David Mackintosh, Leader of Northampton Borough Council STOP the Sale of Sekhemka by Northampton Council.

Vignette: The contested statue.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Sweden Returns Ancient Andean Textiles to Peru

I mentioned these textiles on this blog earlier, it seems a resolution has been reached (Ralph Blumental, 'Sweden Returns Ancient Andean Textiles to Peru', ArtsBeat - New York Times Blog, June 5, 2014).
A mummy’s cloak with tiles of animals that appear to signify time periods or the seasons.One of the world’s most precious troves of looted antiquities — brilliantly colored burial shrouds from an Andean civilization that flourished a thousand years before Columbus — is on its way back to Peru for a ceremonial handover in Lima. The 89 embroidered textiles, named for the Paracas peninsula where they were unearthed around 1930 and then smuggled out by the Swedish consul, ended up in possession of the city of Gothenburg and were displayed there in the National Museum of World Culture. Gothenburg has never disputed that the textiles, some dating back nearly 3,000 years, were “illegally exported” and has long been in talks with Peru for their return. Now, said Peru’s vice minister of cultural patrimony, Luis Jaime Castillo Butters, the mayor of Gothenburg is delivering four of them on June 18. One, Mr. Castillo Butters said, is a woven mummy’s cloak, about 40 by 60 centimeters, with tiles of animals that appear to signify time periods or the seasons. Mr. Castillo Butters said he viewed it as, “the most important textile from Peru and one of the most important in the world.” Several other Paracas textiles remain in other museums. Because the textiles are extremely fragile and require delicate handling, the last pieces from Sweden won’t arrive until 2021, he said.  
UPDATE 9th June 2014
Donna Yates, 'Sacking the Necropolis: how 100 Peruvian mummy textiles ended up in Sweden',  Anonymous Swiss Collector 9 June 2014.

WA Aboriginal leaders retrieve secret sacred items taken a century ago

A group of Aboriginal elders from northern WA travelled south to collect sacred objects taken by explorers or researchers more 100 years ago. They're human remains and sacred objects that were seized as souvenirs or research material since the late 1800's, some of the latter are so sacred they cannot be described to outsiders or seen by women or children. This is just the latest in a stream of returns being made to Aboriginal groups around Australia under a state funded repatriation programme. Much of the activity has been occurring in WA's north, where the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre has been helping traditional owners negotiate with museums and universities. Australian institutions have come a long way in how they view Indigenous artefacts and are working hard to right the wrongs of the past, particularly in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural property, where those relationships weren't necessarily on an equal footing, and where there were situations where people were either coerced or forced to surrender items, or these things were acquired without their knowledge. This repatriation program attempts to address those issues to some degree. It's not just Australian institutions involved. There are a lot of remains still in institutions overseas: in America, Germany, France, Poland, England, South Africa.

Source: Erin Parke, 'WA Aboriginal leaders retrieve secret sacred items taken a century ago',  Friday, June 6, 2014

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Africa, lost 95 percent of its cultural heritages and treasures to the developed world

Africa, a continent that has been labeled as "dark" and "poor" for years could have never seen its current status of the "rising continent," without its immense treasures and natural resources. Nevertheless, resources have been a curse in most instances because of the developed world's incessant tendency of coming in and taking a piece. As a result, the continent is believed to have lost 95 percent of its cultural heritages and treasures to the developed world.

Henok Reta, 'Ethiopia: The Battle for History and Heritage', All Africa 29 March 2014.

The Royal Museum of Central Africa in Brussels and the Colonial Perspective

The Royal Museum of Central Africa in Brussels is at the centre of a debate about how to present the complex legacy of the colonial past and the ethics of cultural ownership ('The plunder years: culture and the colony', Irish Times Mar 25, 2014). The country’s Royal Museum of Central Africa is closing for a three-year renovation, precipitating discussions about the redisplay of the items it contains:
The grand, neoclassical building was built on the outskirts of Brussels by King Leopold II in the late 19th century as a monument to the Belgian Congo. The project was originally intended to be temporary – the Brussels International Exhibition of 1897 was designed to celebrate the newly acquired empire in the Congo, with real-life African villagers brought to Belgium for the event. But a permanent museum to the Congo was built on the site, and its collection gradually increased as the Belgian colony expanded. The packed boats that docked in Antwerp provided a constant provision of treasures and plunders from the Congo. Even by 1910, the Belgian empire was attracting international criticism, albeit by countries that were themselves involved in colonisation. Leopold II had edged into the “great game” of European expansion in Africa in the late 1870s, anxious to put the relatively new country of Belgium on the map. At huge personal expense, the king engaged a number of individuals to navigate the competitive field of international diplomacy to stake his claim to the yet unclaimed wild landscape in central Africa. Figures such as journalist-cum-explorer Henry Morton Stanley, whose discovery of Dr David Livingstone propelled him to stardom, helped Leopold tame a territory that soon spanned an area 80 times the size of Belgium. Leopold never visited the colony. Congo’s extensive rubber resources were the driving force of the colony’s expansion, with slave labour enforced on the native Congolese. A failure to fulfil rubber quotas led to murder and mutilation, with the severing of hands becoming a horrific symbol of the Belgian project. Some estimates put the death toll at up to 10 million.
The Museum of Central Africa maps the history of this period of Belgium’s past and the presentation of the objects still reflect the original colonial perspective. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Native Americans ask German museum to return human scalps in its display

Ojibwe reservations (Wikipedia)
A group of Native Americans has asked a German museum to return some human scalps in its display. The   Ojibwe Nation said the display at the Karl May Museum is 'insensitive' and 'not culturally appropriate':
Members of Native American tribes are involved in a dispute with a German Wild West museum over human scalps in its exhibition.  [...] The Karl May Museum in Radebeul, outside Dresden, has been criticised for displaying the scalps, some of which are decorated with braided hair and beads. [...] The museum, named after adventure writer Karl May, acquired the scalps from the Austrian Ernst Tobis, as part of a huge collection of Native American artefacts he bequeathed to the museum in 1926.

Antonia Molloy, 'Native Americans ask German museum to return human scalps in its display ' The Independent Online Monday 24 March 2014 .

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The growing backlash against the trade in Tribal Art

Brief and rather sketchy piece in the Economist (Feb 8th): "Masks and magic: The growing backlash against the trade in tribal art"
Tribal art began gaining recognition in the late 19th century when exhibitions, such as MoMA’s “Africa Negro Art” show, new ethnographic museums, such as the Palais du Trocadéro in Paris, and the enthusiasm of modernist artists like Pablo Picasso gave the West a taste for the exotic. But growing cultural sensitivity is restricting the market. Museums are increasingly required to return cultural items to the descendants or tribe they belong to. [...] Australia, New Zealand and countries in Central and South America are also demanding the return of sensitive art work from dealers and auction houses directly. [...] Prices are going up as important pieces become scarcer.
Masks meant to be worn and danced not displayed in a foreign museum (Wikipedia)

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Results of Guadian Poll: 88% are for Repatriation

Elginism, 'Guardian Poll shows that more than 17 out of every 20 people support return of Marbles', February 17, 2014
There have been many polls about the Parthenon Marbles in recent years and only a few have shows anything other than a high level of support for their return. The Guardian recently ran a poll, following the publicity from George Clooney’s statements about the sculptures. The results speak for themselves – but the end of the two day poll, the web page attracted over 2,500 comments, and the end result of the poll itself showed that 88% of those who took part were in favour of the sculptures being returned. Politicians have a tendency to state that the marbles are a complex issue and that the country is deeply divided over them – the reality though is that nearly everyone supports return – so why can’t they listen to this and respond sensibly to it, by entering into serious negotiations to resolve it? 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Should Britain return the Parthenon marbles?

Should Britain return the Parthenon marbles? While promoting his new film Monuments Men, about returning art taken by the Nazis to its rightful owners, George Clooney has said that the UK should give the Parthenon marbles back to Greece. Are you with him? Guardian poll, closes at midnight on Saturday. At the moment there is an overwhelming majority (88%) in favour of returning the fragments but disappointingly there seem to be a lot of British nationalists represented in the comments.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Denver Museum Repatriates Vigango

Three of the Denver objects
The long, slender wooden East African memorial totems known as vigango (pronounced vee-GON-go; the singular form is kigango) are creating a ethical crisis  for American museums. 
Some 20 institutions in the United States own about 400 of the totems, according to Monica L. Udvardy, a professor of anthropology at the University of Kentucky and an expert on Kenyan culture who has studied and tracked vigango for 30 years. She said that Kenyans believe that vigango are invested with divine powers and should never have been removed from their sites and treated as global art commodities. Kenyan officials have made constant pleas to have the objects sent back. But repatriating them takes far more than addressing a parcel. No federal or international laws prevent Americans from owning the totems, while Kenyan law does not forbid their sale. And the Kenyan government says that finding which village or family consecrated a specific kigango is arduous, given that many were taken more than 30 years ago and that agricultural smallholders in Kenya are often nomadic. The result is that museum trustees seeking legally to relinquish, or deaccession, their vigango have no rightful owners to hand them to.
Vigango are carved from a termite-resistant wood by members of the Mijikenda people of Kenya and erected to commemorate relatives and important village headmen. Notched and round-headed, they vary in length from four to nine feet and are dressed, served food and tended as living icons. Hundreds of vigango were bought or donated to museums in the 1980s and 1990s by collectors of African art, including some Hollywood luminaries.

The Denver Museum of Nature and Science  received 30 vigango  as donations in 1990 from two Hollywood collectors, the actor Gene Hackman and the film producer Art Linson, bought from .  Now they are trying to give them back. 
“The process is often complicated, expensive and never straightforward,” said Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, the museum’s curator of anthropology. “But just because a museum is not legally required to return cultural property does not mean it lacks an ethical obligation to do so.”The museum this month will deliver its 30 vigango [...] to the National Museums of Kenya. Officials there will choose whether to display the objects, hunt through the nation’s hinterlands for their true owners and original sites, or allow them to decay slowly and ceremoniously, as was intended by their consecrators. Whatever they opt to do, Kenyan officials say, sovereignty over the objects should be theirs and not in the hands of foreign museums. (The details of the transfer are still being negotiated.)[...] The Denver museum “passionately values” such objects, Mr. Colwell-Chanthaphonh said, but added,  “Collections should not come at the price of a source community’s dignity and well-being.”
These are quite valuable objects in the 'tribal art' trade. Vigango sold for perhaps $1,500 apiece in the 1980s, but they are now valued at upward of $5,000 and one fetched $9,500 at auction in Paris in 2012. The Denver Museum's vigango had come from the United States’ foremost dealer in vigango and other East African artifacts, Ernie Wolfe III of Los Angeles.
A brash, boar-hunting devotee of Africa, Mr. Wolfe has long acknowledged that he was a pivotal figure in making a market for vigango in the United States. He said in a telephone interview that the objects became popular in Hollywood in the 1980s. Along with Mr. Hackman and Mr. Linson, aficionados have included the actors Powers Boothe, Linda Evans and Shelley Hack. Mr. Wolfe stoutly defends collecting, selling and exhibiting the objects, saying he rescued them after they had spent their spiritual powers — been “deactivated,” as he puts it — and had been abandoned by their consecrators. He also said that Kenyan officials applauded his first presentation of vigango in the United States, at the Smithsonian Institution in 1979.
To date, only two vigango have been returned by American museums, one each by the Illinois State University Museum in Springfield and the Hampton University Museum in Virginia.

I would be very interested to know, looking at these posts, just what the original buyers saw in them, and what they did with them when they were in their homes.  Did the buy them for their artistic expressiveness (of what)? Or did they buy them as trophy pieces, or to brag about, or just because they were the fad of the time. And what made them give them up? 

 Tom Mashberg, Sending Artworks Home, but to Whom?', New York Times, January 3, 2014