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08.02.2008 Feature Article

Is The Stealing Of Cultural Objects Of Others A Specific Cultural Heritage Of Europe Or Is It A Universal Heritage?

Is The Stealing Of Cultural Objects Of Others A Specific Cultural Heritage Of Europe Or Is It A Universal Heritage?

After reading a lot of books and articles on the question of restitution of cultural objects stolen or illegally exported, I was gradually coming to the conclusion that the taking of cultural objects of others was mainly practised by European nations or nations of mainly European descendants. I was rather uncomfortable with this conclusion since it goes against my general position that all human beings or at least all nations have the potential to behave along fairly similar lines.

I was therefore extremely happy to read in the third edition of Dr Jeanette Greenfield's excellent book, The Return of Cultural Treasures (Cambridge University Press, 2007) that “Sometimes objects have also been peacefully and uncontroversially collected and bought. Such movements are a fascinating reflector of human history. Hardly a nation or tribe has remained untouched by this experience.”(p.xiii)

Dr. Greenfield starts with the fascinating history of the Icelandic manuscripts which relates to the return of manuscripts from Denmark to Iceland which had been removed to the later when Iceland was its colony. Iceland had been asking for the return of these manuscripts as far back as the 1830s but it was only in 1945 when Iceland became independent that the demand was intensified. The final decision to return the manuscript was made in 1971 after some legal battles including the challenge of the constitutionality of a Danish parliamentary Act in 1961 regarding restitution.

From Iceland, Dr. Greenfield turns her attention to what has become the cause célèbre of restitution cases, the Parthenon Marbles/Elgin Marbles. The persistent refusal of the British to return the Parthenon Marbles has surprised most people who have looked at the matter. Dr. Greenfield gives us a very good detailed examination of the arguments on both the Greek and the British sides regarding their rights to the marbles since they were removed some 190 years ago by Lord Elgin from the Parthenon, The Temple of the Greek goddess, Athena, on the Acropolis in Athens.

Some of the arguments and statements made for not return the Parthenon Marbles reminds one of those often heard in connection with African art objects in European and American museums:
A British report noted that it would be “in Greece's best interests to leave the marbles here - though in all probability Greece would not take that view”. According to the author a memorandum from the British Museum dated 31 December 1940 declared: “The principle of tying works of art to their places of origin is not recognized by Western Nations, and the frequent claims that such as have got out shall be returned has never been admitted and seems to be preposterous”.(p.62)

Many international bodies have called on the British to return the Parthenon Marbles. The UNESCO World Conference on Cultural Policies, Mexico,1982, recommended that the Parthenon Marbles be returned for reincorporation into the architectural structure of which they formed a part. The International Council of Museums (ICOM) in its General Assembly in London 1983 passed a resolution on the “Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin”, pointing out the “moral rights of people to recover significant elements of their heritage dispersed as a consequence of colonial or foreign occupation”. The General Assembly of the United Nations has also passed several resolutions emphasizing the rights of people to recover such artefacts. All these international appeals have left the British unimpressed and they refuse to move an inch on this question.

At the instigation of the British Museum, a group of directors of the worlds leading museums issued in December 2002 a Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums. The aim of the Declaration was to establish immunity against all future claims that may be made against those museums holding illegally cultural objects from others. It is true that the British Museum was the guiding spirit behind the move but the British Museum cunningly refrained from becoming signatory to the Declaration, contrary to their inclusion in the list of signatories by Dr. Greenfield. The Declaration was met with a lot of criticism by museum specialists. Moreover, three of the major American museums that signed the Declaration, the Paul Getty Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston have all recently returned stolen cultural objects and thus gone against the main objective of the Declaration, namely, not to return any stolen object.

Dr. Greenfield examines the British and other European practice in the question of restitution. The United Kingdom was not the only colonial master that collected massive number of artefacts from its colonies. France, Belgium, Germany, Holland, Italy, Denmark and Spain did the same. Dr. Greenfield seems to have forgotten Portugal. It was the first to establish colonies and the last to liberate its colonies. The colonial exploitation left many countries in a parlous situation and Dr. Greenfield is surely right when she declares:

“In Africa, South-East Asia and South Asia, the pattern of exploration, colonization, tribute, and then the punitive removal of treasures was repeated, with the result that many African and Asian nations were deprived often of the central core of their own art, as in the case of Benin, or of invaluable documentary records, as in the case of Sri Lanka”. (p.99) It seems also that the Catholic Church was not averse to following the colonialist practice. According to the author:

“In 1925 Pope Pius XI organized a missionary exhibition extolling missionary work all over the non-western world. About 100,000 items were sent and after the exhibition only about half were returned. The Pope proclaimed the formation of a new museum, the Pontifico Museu Missionario-Etnologico, so that the 'dawn of faith among the infidel of today can be compared to the dawn of faith which… illuminated pagan Rome”. (p.100)

The British Museum steadfastly refuses to consider any question of restitution. Sometimes the museum bases its refusal on its alleged universal role and sometimes on grounds that its governing law does not allow it to dispose of objects it holds in trust. Britain became party to the principal convention on the return of cultural property, the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property only in 2002. France became party in 1997 and the United States in 1983. The French also refuse on grounds similar to those of the British Museum.

Opinion in the United Kingdom on the issue of restitution seems to be divided along professional lines; academics seem to favour restitution whereas museum directors and officials are dead against any thought of restitution. Dr. Greenfield summarizes some of these views which are interesting.

The director of the City Museums of Bristol, Nicholas Thomas has said:

It would be disastrous at the present time if the West were to consider returning such material on mainly political grounds; without the guarantee of stability, such return of objects could very likely result in their destruction or use for political purposes...

The former director of the Science Museum, London, Dr. Neil Cossons has said:

If the question of restitution becomes a political one then the particular issue of the Sri Lankan treasures was a dangerous one, since it represented the tip of the iceberg. (p110).

The late Professor Glyn Daniel, Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge has said: the focus of archaeology is already shifting to the Third World, and new national museums will be developed throughout the Third World; there is no good reason why some of the objects in Western National museums should not be returned to their place of origin, such as the Benin bronzes to Africa or the Rosetta Stone to Cairo.

Professor Thurstan Shaw, Emeritus Professor of Archaeology, University of Ibadan, Nigeria, has extensive knowledge of matters that relate to West Africa and has listed some of the main points that ought to be considered:

Each case has to be considered on its merits, especially the circumstances of removal from its country of origin; cultural material should not be removed from good security to bad; despite these earlier considerations, in many cases it would be morally right for the holding country to return cultural material to the country of origin. Where objects were obtained by right of conquest at a time when the country of origin was weak (e.g. Benin bronzes, Ashanti gold, Burmese treasures, much from India in the Army Museum),the ex-imperial country in retaining these items is denying part of the independence 'granted' to such countries; and this is a neo-colonialist policy. (p.109).

After examining the arguments for and against restitution that have been made in Britain, Dr. Greenfield examines the following concrete British cases:

Ashanti Gold (Ghana), The Benin Bronzes (Nigeria), The Koh-I-Noor Diamond (Pakistan/India), Ranjit Singh's Throne (India), Bronze Statues, Ivories and Manuscripts (Sri Lanka), the Treasures of Magdala (Ethiopia), The Stone of Cone (Scotland), the Aurel Stein Collection from Tunghuan (China), the Taranaki Panels and Ortiz Case (New Zealand), The London (Pathur) Sivapuram Nataraja Case (India). Alone, the number of cases here examined and the number of countries involved shows the extent to which Britain and other imperialist powers had plundered their colonies and countries of Africa and Asia.

Most people know about the nefarious British attack on Benin in 1897 and the plundering and burning of the city. Thousands of cultural objects - plaques, large metal heads, carved tusks, portrait heads, statues and carved figures were stolen. A British consul insisted on visiting the Oba of Benin although he had been warned that the time he had chosen was inappropriate because of some customary rites. The consul, Captain Phillips, defiantly proceeded with the journey. He and some of his team were killed. The British promptly sent a punitive army which captured the city, stole thousands of art objects, burnt the City, terrorised for six months the inhabitants of the areas around Benin City in search of the Oba whom they later sent into exile where he died. The British kept some of the Benin bronzes and auctioned the rest to the Germans, the Austrians and other European and American public and private institutions. The result is that Nigeria has fewer of the objects than Germany, Britain and the United States.

Nigeria has requested Britain to return these stolen objects but with no success and Nigeria had to buy some of these Benin bronzes from the British Museum.

When Nigeria requested the loan of one ivory mask which was the mascot for the pan-African cultural festival in 1977 FESTAC (Festival of African Arts and Culture) in Lagos, Britain refused with all kinds of excuses. First a high insurance bond of £ 2 million was requested and later it was alleged the pendant was too fragile to travel.

When a national museum was opened in Benin, an appeal made through the International Council of Museums (ICOM) for all those museums holding Benin objects to return one or two pieces to Benin or give long-term loans so that Benin's ancestral art could be displayed. The appeal fell on deaf ears and not a single piece was returned or loaned. The Ethnology Museum of Berlin, for example has 482 Benin bronzes. In the end, the Benin Museum was opened with photos of those objects. In discussions on the return of the Benin bronzes, some of the British press had their field day to show their lack of respect for Africans and their contempt for the victims of imperialism: The Nigerians were not to be trusted with the Benin bronzes which they might sell again - Sunday Telegraph, I October 2000; The Art Newspapaper, no.107, October 2000 recommended not to return the artefacts to Nigeria and the Daily Telegraph, 16 September, 2002 reported on how the President of Nigeria, General Gowan “liberated” a bronze for the Queen from the National Museum in Lagos. This was in reference of the illegal act of Yakubu Gowan by arbitrary taking a bronze mask as a gift for the British Queen on occasion of his visit to London. Even after the Queen had been advised of the illegality of the gift she still kept it!

I was surprised that Dr. Greenfield accepts uncritically the story of Benin being 'a city of blood' and thereby giving the impression that the attack on Benin was to prevent further human sacrifices and bloodshed:

“European commentators have said that the raid was aimed at putting an end to the human sacrifice rituals. An eyewitness to the taking of Benin City, Commander R.H. Bacon, used the phrase 'city of blood' to describe the sight that met them, and there is little doubt from viewing archive pictures of the time that Benin society was a gruesome one”.(p.123)

Does Dr. Greenfield really trust the unnamed European commentators to be impartial here? Can one trust a senior officer of the British army that attacked and burnt Benin City to speak the truth on this matter? Is this description not more likely to be a post facto justification of the attack? Dr. Greenfield does not give reference to the archive pictures she relies on nor does she indicate who took those pictures. Were they British army officers? She does not refer to the official archives of the British Foreign Office which clearly show that an attack on Benin had been long planned in view of the unwillingness of Oba Ovonramwen to accept British authority. The sale of the Benin bronzes and the possible yield had also been already discussed and planed. We know from colonial history that many of the kings who resisted colonial control - Asante, Dahomey - were all at one time accused of human sacrifices. It is rather discouraging that Western writers, even excellent ones as Dr. Greenfield do not seem to be able or willing to apply normal scholarly criteria when defamatory stories are spread about Africa.

Benin had very good relations with the Portuguese with whom it had good trade relations. Dutch and European visitors that had visited the kingdom had expressed admiration for Benin. It is only when Benin resisted British imperialism that it suddenly became a city of blood. A determination to paint Africa as a continent of savages or at least untrustworthy elements seems to persist. Even a current exhibition on Benin art is still spreading the story of Captain Philips intending to visit the Oba for talks when he and his team were ambushed. Why can Europeans not accept the correct version indicated in the dispatches to the Foreign Office, i.e. a plan to depose the resisting Oba. There is a deep seated unwillingness on the part of many Europeans, even intellectuals, to accept that Benin was a highly civilized society as proved by the fine and intricate bronze works that the Europeans stole and are keeping. A society that did not need the assistance of British colonialism and imperialism which brutally put an end to a civilization that dates back to the 13th Century. Attempts to provide a post invasion justification for the invasion of 1897 stand on very thin grounds that have been laid bare many years ago.

The contribution that Benin could make to a world culture, through its creative potential and artistic expressions has been thwarted by the British, who now, in conjunction with their German and American allies hold to ransom Benin art objects which allow them to produce experts on Benin art but not producers of Benin art. The genius and spirit which produced the civilization of Benin is undoubtedly African in origin and execution.

Less well-known than the British Punitive Expedition to Benin in 1897, was the British Punitive Expedition of 1874 to Kumasi, Ghana, to punish the King of Asante who resisted British attempts to reduce his control over the coastal trade in the former Gold Coast. The Asante were known for their gold and the Golden Stool which the British Governor had disrespectfully requested so that he could sit on. The Golden Stool was said to embody the spirit of the Asante nation and not even the Asante king, the Asantehene, was allowed to sit on it.

With deliberate provocations and other acts of challenge by the British to the political authority of the Asantehene, wars inevitably ensued and gave the British the pretext they had been seeking to attack. In 1874 a British Punitive Expedition Army, under Sir Garnet Wolseley entered Kumasi. According to Dr. Greenfield:

“The king escaped from Kumasi, but the capital and his palace were taken by Wolseley and ransacked of every valuable object: the king's sword, pure hammered gold masks in the shape of a ram's head or that of a man, massive breastplates, coral ornaments, silver plate, swords, ammunition belts, caps mounted in solid gold, knives set in gold and silver, bags of gold dust and nuggets, carved stools mounted in silver, calabashes worked in silver and gold, embroided and woven silk sand numerous other treasures, including in particular a 20-centimetre-high golden head, the largest known gold work from anywhere in Africa, outside Egypt (now in the Wallace Collection in London). The town of Kumasi and the palace were destroyed by fire. Many of the ornaments found their way to the Museum of Mankind, where they still remain; it has been suggested that many of the items came as gifts or by purchase.”(p.119)

The greed, cruelty, ruthlessness and the hypocrisy of the colonialist powers are amply demonstrated in this description by Dr. Greenfield. Incidentally, the name of the Asante king mentioned on p.122 is not “Opoku Wace” but “Opoku Ware”. The Asantehene, Otumfuo Nana Opoku Ware II, reigned from 1970 till his death in 1999.

The Ethiopians have been demanding for years from Britain the return of the various precious imperial and religious treasures stolen by British troops in 1868. These objects include a golden crown owned by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church which is now at the Royal and Albert Museum and hundreds of precious bibles and illustrated manuscripts at the British Library, and at the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester, and Edinburgh. Sacred documents and items of religious importance to the Ethiopian Church, some of them 400 years old, are being held by British institutions.

The acquisition tactics here were similar to those employed in Asante and Benin. The British sent an army expedition to release two British envoys held by the Ethiopian Emperor Tewedros in Magdala, the then capital of the Empire. The Emperor was killed, the treasures looted and the city was destroyed.

A few items have been returned to Ethiopia but the bulk of the looted items remain in Britain and there is no sign that they are about to be returned. The arguments of the British for not returning the items are the untenable familiar ones, including the insult about the Ethiopians not being in a position to guarantee the safety and security of the items. The thief requests from the owner of the stolen items a guarantee of their safety and security as a precondition for their return!

The answer given by the University of Edinburgh (not included by Dr. Greenfield in the list of universities holding Ethiopian items, presumably because that university has a few items compared with Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester and The British Museum) to a request for the return of Ethiopian manuscripts may be of interest:

“It is the considered view of the University that conservation of the documents is of primary concern. Since acquiring these documents, the University Library has exercised good curatorial management over the manuscripts in accordance with current best practice. It has a responsibility to ensure that they are properly conserved in the future.

Regardless of the outcome of any further consideration of this matter, the Court has agreed that the University should work in partnership with AFROMET and University of Addis Ababa, to ensure that the manuscripts are accessible to the Ethiopian people and to scholars through appropriate copies, such as microfilms and digital scans, and that these should be made available to the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at the University of Addis Ababa.

The manuscripts form a part of the overall richness and depth of the University's Collections. The University of Edinburgh plays a significant role as one of the world's leading research universities hosting scholars from all over the world and, through the use of leading edge technology, providing scholarly works to researchers. These manuscripts should be viewed within the context of an active research collection where the interaction of these items is important for scholarship both now and in the future.”

University of Edinburgh press release 28 February 05

The arrogance of this answer requires no comment.

The Asian cases which Dr. Greenfield examines display the same British self-confidence and arrogance and a belief that international law and morality are for others. The British are holding in the Aurel Stein Collection, in the British Museum some 260 paintings and prints, from the seventh to tenth centuries and some 10,000 scrolls from Tunhuang brought by Stein a British civil servant in 1907, from the “Caves of Thousand Buddhas” at Tunhuang in Gansu Province, China.

Dr. Greenfield has chapters on American and Canadian practices which seem to be more liberal and progressive than European practice, on Russia and the former Soviet Union, and on the Hebrew Manuscripts, items which had been stolen from Jews over the previous 600 years.

The Return of Cultural Treasures has a very interesting and useful chapter on the International and regional regulations governing a subject matter where, judging by the pronouncements and practice of some of the major players, the lay person may be excused if she or he thought there were no applicable binding rules and regulations here.

The main instrument in this area is the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (Paris). The United States accepted this Convention which came into force in 1972, only in 1983, France in 1997 and the United Kingdom only in 2002. Surprisingly, many African countries have also not ratified the Convention.

Another major illegal instrument here is the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on the Restitution of Stolen and Illegally Exported Works of Art and Culture (Rome) relating to restitution of cultural objects and the return of such objects to their countries of origin.

UNESCO has a body, The Intergovernmental Committee on Return of Cultural Property which uses its good offices to help countries in bilateral negotiations to solve questions of restitution between States.

As Dr. Greenfield mentions, the United Nations Assembly has passed several Resolutions urging States to return cultural objects to their countries of origin and requested to enter negotiations for that purpose. She quite correctly points out that the Assembly's resolutions have no binding force. I wish however though that she would have added that the Assembly represents the majority of States and hence the world public opinion in these matters; that these resolutions require good faith on the part of Member States. The States that usually oppose the General Assembly on these issues are, not unexpectedly, the Western countries and their allies.

Although the international instruments have served to highlight the complicated issues of the question of restitution, they have not been very effective in securing the restitution of cultural objects.

It is when the author comes to discuss the issues of art theft and the art market that we realize the extent of the damage to the world art treasures and the connections of States to these illegal activities. Countries like Austria and Germany are never quick to restore Nazi stolen art works to their owners, even long after treaties have stipulated their restitution. Dr. Greenfield discusses at length the Altmann Case where successors of the owner had to fight a long battle to recover paintings which had been seized by the Nazis in Austria. There are still similar cases pending resolution in Austria. France, for example, is not averse from purchasing stolen Nigerian terra cotta for the Musée du Quai Branly even though the item had clearly been listed on the Nigerian list of items which are prohibited from exportation.

Plunder of art and archaeological objects has been going on a frightening scale and with the complicity of many powerful institutions. Countries in turmoil or subject to invasions are the worst off. Iraq has had most of its very valuable objects, many going back to very ancient civilizations -Sumerian, Akkadian and Babylonian periods- have been plundered. These objects and sites were not protected even though before the invasion, the need for protection was obvious to all and was discussed. Afghanistan has also had its ancient treasures plundered on a wide scale and many of these items are in western European museums.

But plunder also goes on in countries that are at peace. China and Korea seem to be specially targeted by plunders who obviously supply the Western art market with Asian art objects.

Dr. Greenfield has an interesting chapter on the question of restitution of skulls, bones and artefacts to the peoples the Westerners call the “First People” i.e. Aborigines and the Native Americans. The terminological problems alone indicate the hypocrisies involved here. The author also points out quite correctly that artefacts were valued by the peoples not simply for the material content:

“Since the 1980s there has been wider recognition of the rights of indigenous or aboriginal people - First Nations-to reclaim their cultural heritage through retrieving their relics and the bones of their ancestors. Sometimes the issue of artefacts becomes intermingled with the question of funerary objects, particularly bones. The history of their loss has often been painful. Repatriation involves restoring the collective memory, and in some respects it is as much about reconciling the living and the present with the past as it is about putting the ancestors to rest. These things were not originally treasured for their material worth but for the fact that they emanated from the marrow and the spirit of their owners and their earthly existence. It could be argued that no museum can fully convey that.”(p.300)

The answers that Australian aborigines received when they sought to recover the bones of their ancestors from Western museums were frankly disgraceful. According to Dr. Greenfield, the response of English institutions was legalistic while Scottish response was, scientific. In the United States the response was to request that special safekeeping place be considered and accommodation made for preservation and scientific access. The Swedes and the French had similar views. Belgium and Austria opposed any return. The Director of the Natural History of Vienna responded to demand that the Tasmanian Aborigines were extinct! The fact that non-Western peoples have to negotiate for the bones of their ancestors with Western institutions is surely a clear indication of the contempt in which the West has over hundreds of years held these people. The human being and his or her body, as well as his or her corpse, are held in respect and are subject to certain rules. But this has apparently application only to European and other Westerners. Africans, Asians and others seem to have been free game for all kinds of experiments. We still have museums that argue they need these bones for scientific studies and research. Why do they not take the bones of some of the Europeans around but have to go to Africa, Asia and Latin America and massacre the people there?

One can only agree with Dr. Greenfield that: “Foreign holding institutions cannot reasonably expect to retain such indigenous human remains in perpetuity”. (p.337)

Europeans and their museums have for a long time displayed Africans as if they were not human beings. Indeed, in most western countries Africans were paraded like animals in circus, in Britain, France and Germany in the so-called “Peoples shows”. The worst example of this display, mentioned by Dr.Greenfield, is the case of Saartjie Baartman, a Khoisan lady, who because of her unsual body shape was brought by a British ship surgeon to England to be exploited as a sexual freak and was paraded all over Europe and was mockingly named the “Hottentot Venus”.

After her death, French scientists, in order to establish European racial superiority, made a mould of her body, genitals and all and displayed it in the Paris Museum of Mankind until 1974. Mandela intervened for her return and President Mitterrand gave his promise and the body was returned to South Africa. The French National Assembly authorised her repatriation in 2002. A funeral ceremony was held for her to wipe out the recollection of her awful sojourn among Europeans and to restore the dignity of her people. (p.340)

The European habit of massacring Africans in the colonial period and in apartheid South Africa, yielded more that sufficient skulls, bones and skeletons for European scientists and anthropologists. One recalls the thousands of Hereros, Namas, and others whose bones are still in Europe, especially in the Ethnologische Museum Berlin and which later transferred them to the Naturhistorische Museum Berlin and to the Naturhistorische Museum Vienna.

Has the time not come for all such museums to open their secret rooms and tell us how many of these bones are still there and possibly identify their sources? Many of the persons who disappeared under colonial rule have still not been accounted for.

Dr. Greenfield's last chapter, entitled “Homecomings: real and virtual” enumerates many instances of return of cultural objects to their countries of origin. The author however, ends her excellent book, by stating that: “Perhaps the notion that some of the major cultural treasures of the world should be returned to the people to whom they matter most is put into true perspective by the words of the nineteenth-century American writer Nathaniel Hawthorn.”

Hawthorne observed in 1856 after visiting the British Museum that:

“The present is too much burdened with the past. We have not time, in our early existence, to appreciate what is warm with life, and immediately around us; yet we heap up all these old shells out of which human life has long emerged, casting them off forever. I do not see how future ages are to stagger onward under all this dead weight, with the additions that will be continually made to it”. (p.443)

If what Dr. Greenfield intends with this citation is to say that the immense accumulation of objects in the British Museum and similar museums is too much for the needs of the countries they serve, then I think most of us will agree. If on the other hand, the intention is to underline the relative unimportance of the return of cultural objects (which I doubt very much) then we would have to say that we disagree. Her own gigantic efforts in producing this excellent book which is the best I know of in the English language, tend to show how important the return of cultural objects are for those concerned, certainly for the countries of Africa, Latin America and Asia which have been victims of Western European greed.

Dr. Greenfield has certainly produced a masterpiece which we can recommend to both beginners and specialists. I know of no other book on the issue of restitution which comes close to this book in its breadth of knowledge and careful detailed analysis. There are many statements in this which I would like to have boldly reproduced in gold and put in front of many museums and parliaments, assuming those bodies would permit that and the plunders would not steal the inscriptions, even if I use metal or wood.

After reading some 500 pages, I still do not have a clear conclusion as to whether stealing of other peoples cultural object is a specifically European cultural heritage or universal. The examples cited by Dr. Greenfield relate to Europeans or nations with majority population of European descent. She mentions, however Japan having taken cultural objects from Korea and China. But there are no known cases of African States having forcibly or illegally taken European cultural objects and refusing to return them to their countries of origin. Similarly, no Asian countries are known to have taken illegally European or African or Latin American cultural objects. Nor are there any intra African disputes in this area.

Certainly the ability to display stolen art works of others, without compunction or shame or regret, without any expression of apology or condolences for those whose lives or livelihood may have been destroyed in the acquisition, is available to a greater extent in Europe than elsewhere. One cannot imagine Ghanaians or Nigerians displaying, on a large scale, stolen British or German artworks in Accra or Lagos, which the owners want back, and the Ghanaians and Nigerians feeling that they are doing humanity a great service and expecting to be congratulated or congratulating themselves on this “achievement”. The reaction of the African public to this open display of stolen property would prevent the exhibition lasting for long. There are simply no precedents or traditions in our public morality for such exhibitions.

The overwhelming evidence so far available would tend to support the conclusion that systematic and large scale stealing or plundering of the cultural objects of others and refusing to return them has been so far practised primarily by Europeans and States controlled by people of European culture.

Published By:Afrikanet.info, Germany

Kwame Opoku, Dr.
Kwame Opoku, Dr., © 2008

This author has authored 249 publications on Modern Ghana. Author column: KwameOpoku

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