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On the Return of Art and Antiquities

You can’t pick up a newspaper or visit an art blog these days without running into a story about some country suing an American museum or institution over the return of some artwork or antiquities that may have made their way to the United States through shady means or even forgotten formal agreements.

Bloomberg reports that the government of Peru plans to sue Yale University over hundreds of artifacts taken from the ancient city of Machu Picchu nearly a century ago.

This may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back (or in this case the llama’s back).

The artifacts made their way to the United States through Yale archeologist Hiram Bingham. Peru’s government claims the artifacts were on loan. Yale contends the artifacts were legally excavated and exported “in line with the practices of the time.”

If these artifacts were sent to the United States through some agreement with the Peruvian government nearly a century ago, then Yale has a case for keeping them; otherwise — in the event that the American archeologists simply found them, crated them, and shipped them to the United States all on their own, then today’s courts may well rule in Peru’s favor.

The straw that may break the camel’s back may also unlock Pandora’s box (which Greece will soon be suing for).

First, let’s get one thing clear: Nazi art loot should and must be returned to their original owners or descendants. But for most all the other demanding of artwork returns: where does it stop? Unless you have some official paperwork signed, stamped, and approved (and recognized as valid), then this begs many questions.

Does every Roman artifact in museums around the world have to be returned to Italy? Do Italian museums have to return Roman antiquities that were made in other parts of the Roman Empire to the nations that now exist there? And Italy better start packing the 13 Egyptian obelisks that are all over Rome: Cairo is clearing out some spaces for them. Does every Greek vase go back to Greece? If so, do Greek museums have to return Cypriot antiquities to Cyprus? Does every mummy have to find its way back to Egypt? How about that “official” cadaver of Christopher Columbus in the Havana Cathedral? Sorry, back to Spain — or is it Italy, or Portugal? All three of these nations can currently claim him as a native son, although I suspect the Grand Admiral’s descendants, currently living in Spain, have first dibs on Chris’ bones. And the fake Columbus cadaver in the Seville Cathedral? Back to Genoa, even if it is fake (just in case). After all, that fake Scottish Stone of Destiny has made its way back to Scotland (God only knows where the real one is), but there are probably hundreds of thousands of antiquities (if not millions) from all over the world that are disseminated — all over the world.

Our own Smithsonian has over 100,000 pre-Columbian antiquities in its inventory (most of which are not even on display). Do the ones that were created by pre-Columbian artisans from north and south of our border have to be returned to the countries that now exist there?

Unless these museums have a provenance with lots of country of origin stamps authorizing the removal of the antiquity, I’d be pretty nervous if I was one of those museums. And even if you have such a paper, what’s to stop today’s version of a country’s government from saying that they do not recognize the authority of their predecessors to allow the removal of a national treasure from their nation? And where does it stop?

Frida Kahlo was essentially ignored by Mexico while she was alive, and yet decades after her death, she was deified outside of Mexico. Eventually the government of Mexico made her works a national treasure and forbade the export of any of Kahlo’s works from Mexico. I think this is a good (if late) thing for Mexico and Mexicans. But what’s to stop a future Mexican government from demanding the return of any and all Frida Kahlos outside of Mexico back to her mother nation? It would just be a case of this “return” trend being pushed a little more.

Personally, I think from now on, when I visit foreign museums, I will be making a list of American Indian artifacts in those museums and they better damned well have a piece of paper somewhere full of stamps and signatures from the Sioux, the Walla Walla, the Cheyenne, the Seminoles, the Oneida, or whatever indigenous Native American nation currently living in the United States that created them.

Official export paperwork from the United States government is not valid and will not be accepted, regardless of how many non-Indian Washington, DC officials have signed it. Of course, that may also mean that every non-Indian museum in the United States itself would have to return every Native American Indian artifact back to their tribes.

Makes my head hurt.

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