By: Simrit Hans
The Egyptian government’s recent threat to sue the British auction house, Christie’s, for the return of an ancient sculpture encapsulates a familiar narrative regarding cultural property’s state of chaotic displacement. The argument on one side is that cultural items have been looted, improperly exported, and ought to be returned. The other side, however, argues that these demands for return are often built on ethical or political grounds rather than legal ones and are unreasonable because of the passage of time and difficulties tracing ancient art’s provenance.
The Egyptian Government’s Claim
The current saga involving an 11 inch quartzite sculpture representing a young King Tut as the ancient Egyptian god Amen began when Christie’s announced in June 2019 that the stone head would be sold the following month. The Egyptian embassy in London pleaded with the auction house and UNESCO to stop the sale and to release documents confirming the artifact’s ownership. Their efforts were to no avail.
Mostafa Waziri, secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, believes the sculpture was stolen, while Egypt’s former minister of antiquities Zahi Hawass said it was most likely looted from the Karnak temple in the 1970s. Christie’s, for its part, stood by its recollection of the head’s provenance, stating that it was in Prinz Wilhelm von Thurn und Taxis’ collection by the 1960s, and then subsequently obtained by an Austrian art dealer. However, Daria von Thurn und Taxis (Prinz Wilhelm’s niece) reportedly revealed that Wilhelm never owned the contested artifact, a claim that’s strengthened by the fact that there are no documents to prove Wilhelm’s ownership, thus casting more doubt on Christie’s story.
Since the sale, Egypt has reached out to Interpol to track down the head, and is planning to sue Christie’s. In its July 4 press release the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the sale “is a matter that conflicts with the relevant international treaties and conventions as [Christie’s] has to date not submitted the artifacts’ documentation to the Egyptian side” and “the Egyptian Embassy in London will continue its efforts and measures…in order to end the illicit trafficking in Egypt’s cultural heritage.”
The Larger Battle Surrounding Repatriation
With a legal battle looming, Christie’s defended itself, saying that it completed its due diligence in confirming the ownership and legal title relating to the sculpture by verifying required facts of recent ownership and publishing a 50-year collecting history speaking to the head’s provenance. Meanwhile, Joanna van der Lande, Chairman of the Antiquities Dealers’ Association, lamented: “The Egyptian claim…is part of a wider zeitgeist where nations rich in cultural heritage reclaim works found on the antiquities market.” While van der Lande admitted the importance of tightening due diligence practices, she emphasized that “the changing perception of who should own what is far more complicated” and it is the rules of law, not emotion, that must be applied.
This is a similar argument made by others against repatriation. In an opinion piece published in the New York Times in 2013, Hugh Eaken criticized what he saw as a trend of museums returning antiquities to countries threatening legal action without having the proper legal backing. Eaken viewed this trend as amounting to an all-out “war” on western museums.
Former UK Culture Secretary and British lawyer Jeremy Wright would likely agree with Eaken, breaking from the recent strides that France has made towards a future of temporary and permanent repatriation. French President Emmanuel Macron commissioned a report on the return of African art which yielded a recommendation that all objects taken without consent be permanently returned upon the request of African nations. Macron subsequently announced that the Quai Branly Museum in Paris would return 26 objects looted from Benin. Wright, on the other hand, rejected the idea of new legislation enabling permanent restitution from national museums. Instead, he argued that there should be a focus on cooperating with countries to ensure that art from around the world can be viewed at a single point. Wright seems to believe that “point” should be British museums.
The Laws Framing Repatriation Debates
While repatriation conversations can focus on ethical guidelines for museums in the name of maintaining diplomatic relations with various governments, there is a relevant legal framework surrounding the topic and speaking to the status of looted objects. There are national laws, such as Egypt’s Law on the Protection of Antiquities (Law No. 117) enacted in 1983, which requires strict regulation and approval from the state in all aspects of antiquities dealings. In the United States, 19 U.S.C. § 1595a mandates that merchandise be seized and forfeited if it has been “stolen, smuggled, or clandestinely imported.” Further, in the European Union, Regulation (EU) 2019/880 was passed in April 2019, requiring import licenses for holders of cultural goods and “supporting documents” evidencing “that the cultural goods in question have been exported in accordance with the laws and regulations of the last country where they were located for a period of more than five years…”
There are also international laws and agreements. The 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, ratified by 140 countries, requires that states take preventative measures to combat illicit trade. It requires that countries take appropriate action, such as forming draft laws and regulations designed to protect cultural heritage and prevent illicit transfers, in order to recover and return any cultural property improperly imported after the Convention’s entry into force. Furthermore, the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects mandates that “the possessor of a cultural object which has been stolen shall return it” and provides the legal mechanisms to achieve restitution on the international scale.
The Wider Repatriation Debate Will Continue
Despite the national and international laws that exist, questions surrounding repatriation remain. Many continue to wonder how issues of unsure provenance and complex histories will further complicate the already fraught arena. Legal challenges remain even in places such as France, where new steps toward repatriation are being taken. Because of the “inalienability of public collections,” there remains the requirement that parliament approve restitution or that parties come to a different, bilateral agreement. Moreover, the existing laws requiring punishment and the possible return of goods only address those cases where there is at least some clarity of an item’s origin and documented ownership history. Regardless, with countries like Egypt, Greece, and the Democratic Republic of Congo increasingly making these requests for repatriation and taking legal action, it’s clear that no matter how murky the past, these countries want their histories returned to them.