Thursday, 12 April 2012

Repatriation with extreme prejudice

A news story grabbed my attention recently. An antique Chinese bowl has been stolen from a university museum in the UK. It's been theorized that the theft was done 'to order'. There seems to be a flow of Chinese antiquities back to the East now the country grows in wealth and influence.

I was reminded of the arguments surrounding the repatriation of antiquities acquired under 'contentious' circumstances. The most famous are the Elgin Marbles (AKA the Parthenon frieze) and the Benin bronzes, both of which are in the (cough) British Museum. As their countries of origin become more politically stable and the citizens more aware of their own (missing) heritage, these nations have mobilised efforts to reclaim artifacts taken, in their view, illegally. The difference in the case of the stolen bowl is that no one seems to have claimed it moved to the UK in circumstances which were anything other than wholly legal. Its removal, by contrast, seems unabashedly underhand (there was a large degree of hole-drilling involved).

But what do the Chinese think of this? Does a nation have claim to artifacts created within its borders which have traveled legally? What if an antiquity was created in, say, India but immediately after it was constructed it moved to the UK and has been here for hundreds of years? Does it not, then, become part of the UK's national identity? Is there any merit to the argument that all nations should have access to works of art from across the world and so have multinational collections?

These are interesting questions indeed, but they may prove altogether irrelevant if wealthy individuals are willing to go to extreme lengths to obtain artifacts.

Photograph: The Oriental Museum at Durham University

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