Calls for return of looted artifacts rise after thefts at British Museum
A visitor to the British Museum takes a photograph of a selection of Greek marble busts in London, UK, August 23, 2023. /CFP
A visitor to the British Museum takes a photograph of a selection of Greek marble busts in London, UK, August 23, 2023. /CFP

A visitor to the British Museum takes a photograph of a selection of Greek marble busts in London, UK, August 23, 2023. /CFP

Discussions over whether museums should return looted items to their countries of origin reignited recently after a spate of thefts at the British Museum.

As many as 2,000 items from the British Museum were found to be "missing, stolen or damaged" in August, leading to the sacking of a curator and the resignation of director Hartwig Fischer.

Fischer said in a statement that the museum "did not respond as comprehensively as it should have in response to the warnings (of thefts) in 2021" and that "the responsibility for that failure must ultimately rest with the director."

The items lost included gold jewelry, gems of semiprecious stones and ancient glassware dating from the 15th century BC to the 19th century AD, according to the museum. Cultural heritage experts have said that many of the priceless artifacts may never be recovered because of its poor record keeping, The Guardian reported.

Most of the eight million objects in the British Museum's collection come from other countries. In the past 30 years, thefts of statues, coins, medals and jewelry have been reported at the museum.

The thefts recently reported have again revealed the incompetence of the museum's security management. No longer a safe repository for the looted treasures, the museum's old arguments for keeping those items have crumbled.

"It certainly undermines the argument that certain Western institutions, the sort of "internationalist museums," hold safely and securely objects on trust for mankind as such. You can very much counter-argue that at the moment by referencing the alleged theft of all these objects," said art and cultural heritage law expert Till Vere-Hodge.

Proof of looting

The scandal over alleged thefts also renewed calls from countries such as Nigeria, Greece and China for contested artifacts to be returned.

Nigerian and Greek officials have publicly demanded the return of treasures after news of British Museum thefts. Benin Bronzes and the Parthenon Marbles are now the center of renewed calls for repatriation.

Over 900 bronze Benin pieces in the British Museum are looted from the West African kingdom of Benin (modern-day Nigeria) at the end of the 19th century by British troops.

The classical Parthenon Marbles, also known as the Elgin Marbles, were removed from the temple of Athena (the Parthenon) on the Acropolis in Athens in the 19th century by British Ambassador Lord Elgin. The British Museum has refused decades of appeals from Greece to return these sculptures, which have been a centerpiece of the museum since 1816.

The ruler of Ghana's Asante people Otumfuo Osei Tutu II demanded in May the British Museum to return gold items in its collection, which were stolen from the Asante king's palace and homes of royals during the war with the British of 1874. Talks about return of the items and possible compensation continue to drag on. 

In 2021, 13 stolen Ethiopian artifacts were returned home from the British Museum after a century and a half. These artifacts were taken in 1868 after the battle of Maqdala between the British and Ethiopian empires. But the work is far from over, Ethiopian officials said, as more plundered pieces are still waiting to be returned.

The British Museum now has the largest collection of Chinese artifacts in the West, with a total of 23,000 objects, ranging from bronzes, porcelain, jade, to calligraphy and paintings.

"Unfortunately, you would have to look at the provenance on each object at a time on a case-by-case analysis," said Vere-Hodge, pointing out the difficulties in demanding return of these items. 

"Generally speaking, historical facts can be quite confusing and complex. And it's quite time-consuming to research the provenance of objects. I certainly suspect that there would be objects subject to promising claim," Vere-Hodge said.

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