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09.11.2008 Feature Article

With Or Without Britain, Restitution Of Cultural Artefacts Is Gaining Momentum

Queen-Mother Idia,Benin,British Queen-Mother Idia,Benin,British

The question that many observers must be asking themselves these days is when will Britain finally join the movement for restitution and abandon anachronistic and imperialist views which may have been acceptable in the 19th century but are clearly not acceptable in our days. We do not believe that Great Britain would lose any of its greatness if it did start returning stolen/looted artefacts in its museums to their countries of origin. On the contrary, it would restore confidence in many who doubt that that country intends to keep apace with world changes and developments in the cultural area. Greatness is not constituted by the possession of objects, especially if their legitimacy is contested. To recognize errors of the past and to attempt to achieve peaceful solution to disputes with neighbours, both close and far, are surely a more indicative signs of true greatness. Switzerland is returning some 4,400 artefacts to Italy, in addition to returning some 1000 objects to Egypt. This surely is the act of a country that intends to rely on moral persuasion in its dealings with other countries and does not remain in an imperial past the activities of which have been generally condemned.

Kwame Opoku, 8 November, 2008.

Swiss to return stolen antiquities to Italy

By FRANK JORDANS AP. November 6, 2008.

GENEVA (AP) — Switzerland is returning 4,400 ancient artifacts stolen from archaeological sites in Italy, including ceramics, figurines and bronze daggers dating as far back as 2,000 B.C., prosecutors said Thursday.

The transfer will require three tractor-trailers and all but end a seven-year legal battle over the antiquities.

They were seized in 2001 in storage rooms belonging to two Basel-based art dealers after a tip-off from Italy, said Markus Melzl, a spokesman for city prosecutors. The couple have since lost several court battles to prevent the antiquities from being returned to Italy, Melzl said.

More than half the objects were from the eastern Italian region of Apulia, an area that was heavily influenced by ancient Greek culture, said Guido Lassau, a Swiss archaeologist who worked on the case.

They include richly decorated vases and so-called kraters, large vessels that were used for mixing wine with water. The objects were stolen from upper-class tombs dating from the fifth to third centuries B.C., according to Lassau.

One item that looks like a ceramic mask modeled on a woman's face retains the original water-soluble painting from about 300 B.C.

"They're very well preserved because they spent the last 2,000 years in a virtual time capsule until they were plundered by grave robbers," Lassau told The Associated Press. "But the tragic thing is that a lot of the archaeological information was lost when they were removed."

Other items belong to the pre-Etruscan Villanova culture of northern Italy, and some of the bronze figures appear to have originated on the island of Sardinia.

The oldest are bronze daggers thought to be about 4,000 years old, said Lassau.

"This is a vast haul on a dramatic scale that would have saturated the market if they had been sold," he said, adding that very few such items are available through legal channels.

Melzl said it was almost impossible to put a value on the haul.

"The only way you can sell these things is on the black market," he said. "It's like asking how expensive the Mona Lisa is. These are goods of important historical value. They're priceless."

But if the couple had managed to sell all the items, and there is evidence they sold at least a few, "you'd make millions," said Melzl.

The couple, who have not been identified because of Swiss privacy laws, are under investigation in Italy and Switzerland, he said.

The woman could face prosecution in Switzerland for handling stolen goods, and her husband is the subject of criminal proceedings in Italy for allegedly exporting cultural antiquities illegally, handling stolen goods and belonging to a criminal organization, Melzl said.

Swiss authorities are still trying to determine the exact origin of some 1,400 further antiquities also confiscated in 2001.

Switzerland was until recently a major hub for the trade in stolen antiquities, but new laws introduced in 2005 have largely shut down the illegal market there, said Lassau.

"The market has moved on to Germany, which has far looser laws," he said. "They really need to close the loopholes in their legislation, if they want to stop the global trade in these goods."

Copyright © 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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

This author has authored 252 publications on Modern Ghana. Author column: KwameOpoku

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