Stolen and Looted: Who Does the Past Belong To?

It would seem that The J. Paul Getty Museum disagrees with the nation of Italy with regard to ownership of antiquities in their possession:

Italian Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli said that an offer by the J. Paul Getty Museum to hand over 26 disputed antiquities doesn’t go far enough and that the museum needs to return all of the artifacts Italy has requested.

Italy is asking for 21 others, including “Statue of a Victorious Youth,” known as the Getty Bronze. The Los Angeles- based J. Paul Getty Museum, the world’s richest private art institution, said on Nov. 21 that it would return only some of the contested objects.

In a statement issued after the press conference, Getty Museum Director Michael Brand said the museum was “deeply saddened” by Italy’s response, and offered to continue talks. Brand invited Rutelli, who plans to be in the U.S. next week, to the Getty Villa, a museum of Roman, Etruscan and Greek art, “so he can see for himself the impact the magnificent works of art displayed there have on the American public.”


The quote above is found at:
Italy Says Getty Needs to Surrender All Disputed Artifacts [www.bloomberg.com]
But it raises the question: “who does the past belong to?” I don’t know the provenance of the antiquities in question or read as yet whether or not there is any documented evidence of their existence before the 1970 UNESCO conference (though it would seem there isn’t given the Italian government’s interest in them), but should museums be required to give back antiquities that draw thousands of visitors and inspire many to take an interest in history and archaeology? I say yes. Particularly if the artifacts are post-1970 and have no provenance. Clearly, with these antiquities, museum curators should have known something was not on the up-and-up if a dealer was unwilling or unable to provide provenance. Museums stand to loose millions of dollars in handing back stolen and looted property, but such is the risk they took by accepting questionable goods to begin with.

In other looted news:

“Relics looted from the Middle East being sold on the Internet and at markets in Britain may be helping to fund international terrorism,” which can be read at: Artifacts sold in Britain could be funding terrorism [www.metimes.com]

Poverty makes Bulgarians Rob Archaeological Heritage – National Geographic [ www.sofiaecho.com]
The trade in artifacts is more profitable than drug trade in poverty-striken Bulgaria, where the middle-class is now “flat broke” and looking for subsistence. Their strategy is to loot their cultural heritage of Thracian gold. The risk associated with such activity was once considered great, but desperate times may call for desperate measures. It continues the question of “who does the past belong to” in a different perspective: do the Bulgarian people have the right to sell their own cultural heritage on the black market in order to sustain themselves? The archaeologist in me balks at the idea. The father in me understands the need to feed and clothe the ones you love beyond all else.

Holocaust heirs still being sought [www.praguepost.com]
The Czech Republic is wants to answer “who does the past belong to?” and has even set up a website to do it. During World War II, the Nazi regime and the Gestapo confiscated thousands of art and cultural items from Jewish citizens as part of the Holocaust. Earlier this month, the Czech Republic voted to abandon a deadline for the families of Holocaust victims to reclaim their property, which includes: “[o]
rnate metal goblets for the Seder table. Porcelain figurines and marble sculptures. Oil paintings dating to the 17th century. Hundreds of copies of the Torah and other Holy Scriptures.”

They’ve also established a website (set up by Sotheby’s, ironically enough) called Restitution-Art [www.restitution-art.cz] to help locate individual pieces of art and cultural items.

In the past four years, some 20,000 pieces — textiles, liturgical objects, furniture, paintings and sculptures — have been identified as Holocaust spoils, said Kraus. About 3,400 pieces have been entered into a searchable online database: www.restitution-art.cz. The rest will be gradually added, but until then a complete list is kept at the Culture Ministry.


About Carl Feagans 313 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

3 Comments

  1. Since the Statue of a Victorious Youth was originally stolen from the Greeks by the Romans, why would it be sent to Italy? Seems as if it should be sent back to Greece.

  2. I think that’s a fair question. The Statue of Victorious Youth was found in 1969 in the Adriatic off the coast of Italy, ostensibly from a shipwreck. From there, little can really be said about its provenance other than it is obviously Greek in origin. It’s actual age and even the ship that was carrying it can’t be accurately identified.

    Given this information, I’d say the best rightful owner would be Italy, since it was found in Italian waters. After all, would we expect that Spanish treasure found in the waters of the Florida Keys should be returned to Spain? The gold originated from Mexico and Latin America -should it go back to the descendants of the Maya?

    The key point in this statue’s case might be the date: it was found just one year before the UNESCO conference.

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