Even before President Mubarak had fallen, Egypt had renewed demands for the return of a bust of Queen Nefertiti from Germany. It also will no doubt be demanding that Britain give back the Rosetta Stone.
Countries all across the world have already agreed to return such treasures, in some cases to groups like Native Americans. These disputes have even included bodies.
The story of the Nefertiti bust reads like some of the Indiana Jones movies in which Harrison Ford plays the ass-kicking archaeologist. Villains in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade include Nazis.
Indeed, early on Germany had agreed to send the Nefertiti bust back, but Hitler took power and blocked it. The Third Reich stole billions of dollars’ worth of paintings and other artworks.
Fictional stories like the Indiana Jones movies are eclipsed by real history. During colonial days, thousands of Egyptian antiquities were seized and moved to Europe. Thousands more were removed without permission from Africa and Central and South America. The United Nations has demanded these jewels be returned.
The art world has been more compliant, returning Picasso’s Guernica to Spain, as well as other famous works. An Austrian museum, the Kunsthistorisches, has refused to return to Vermeer’s native Holland his The Art of Painting. This work of the camera obscura pioneer is so special that Vermeer, who sold or otherwise released only about 35 paintings, never sold it even when he was desperately poor. Among the “owners” of the painting was Adolf Hitler.