On air: Should lost national treasures be returned?

_45513427_bronzes_afp226bA Chinese bidder has refused to pay up over 30 million dollars that he successfully bid for two sculptures taken from Beijing in the 19th century. He’s being hailed as a hero in China, and it’s once again raised the issue of who owns items taken during past wars or colonial rule.

Recent examples….The Cleveland Museum of Art agreed to return 13 antiquities and a late Gothic processional cross to Italy after authorities there proved the works were looted, stolen or handled by traffickers. So does the time elapsed make a difference as to whether something should be returned – or indeed the way in which it was taken? A stolen greek vase was also returned to Italy.

But not everyone is so willing to return items to their original home. The Elgin marbles is one such example. They rest at the British Museum, where they claim they are safer than if they were returned to Greece. Just last week Iraq’s national museum reopened after it was reported that 170,000 artefacts were stolen or looted from the Baghdad building amidst the fierce fighting in the city in 2003.  Thousands have been recovered but many more haven’t. When and if they are found, should they be returned? Or if someone has paid money for them, should they have the right to keep them?

94 Responses to “On air: Should lost national treasures be returned?”

  1. 1 Tony from Singapura
    March 2, 2009 at 13:35

    This is a great story.

    Trading looted treasure in such a public forum is not proper.

    I applaud and salute the gentleman who refuses to pay.

  2. 2 Dora
    March 2, 2009 at 14:18

    This is a huge problem internationally and is still going on, the market has been flooded recently with looted Iraqi antiquities. I have been given to understand that the trade in looted and illegal art & antiquities is second only to drugs as world-wide crime problem. I believe that a part of the problem lies with the action houses who don’t do nearly enough to establish provenance for an object and seem only interested in making money. If the objects weren’t so easy to sell then it might go a way to kerbing the theft.

  3. 3 VictorK
    March 2, 2009 at 14:20

    Chinese hypocrisy.

    Didn’t China do much worse in Tibet: following invasion and conquest, the systematic destruction of a substantial part of that country’s cultural heritage, from hundreds of monasteries (I believe most religious establishments were razed to the ground) to vandalising untold thousands of religious and cultural artifacts?

    How much of China’s own material culture was destroyed during the cultural revolution? More, I should think, than was ever looted from the Summer Palace, or anywhere else, by foreigners.

    How can such a regime of cultural vandals deserve anybody’s sympathy or support? More importantly, why should anybody believe that the Chinese Communists are in anyway the legal successors of Imperial & then Nationalist China? Isn’t a regime of anti-Confucian materialists espousing a foreign, Western political religion – Marxism – as alien as it’s possible to be to the traditions of the true China of history, of the Emperors, and the mandarinate?

  4. 4 Mohammed Kondawa
    March 2, 2009 at 14:23

    To my understanding, the word LOST means forfitness. But in the case of war, it is nothing like lost because it was illgotten by war mongers from the rightful owners, thereby depriving them of their right to ownership. The issue of National Treasures be returned, yes it must be, and can be enforced by state actors if they themselves are not / were not involved in the act.

    Mohammed Kondawa

    Monrovia Liberia

  5. 5 Katy in Lakewood, OH
    March 2, 2009 at 14:28

    I think it’s appropriate that they be returned to the Chinese people to display them as they will. Simply because they have been missing for a century, does not give Christie’s the right to auction them before addressing the Chinese government or people.

  6. 6 VictorK
    March 2, 2009 at 15:12

    Lost treasures should only be returned when they were stolen from the society that created them, which at the time had an established government that would have regarded the loss as theft, when returned items will be properly cared for if given back, and where there is today a government of the same territory which is legally, culturally and morally continuous with the society under which the original ‘theft’ occurred.

    On these terms there should be no restitution to Egypt, most sub-Saharan African countries, Greece, China, India, the countries of Latin America, Christian minorities in the Muslim world, etc.

    Restitution for the legal heirs of private owners of works of looted art. Restitution for ‘recent’ thefts (say, since WWII). Restitution for historic thefts from states continuously established from the time of the theft till the present.

  7. 7 Donnamarie in Switzerland
    March 2, 2009 at 15:13

    Mexico and the countries of Central and South America could declare ownership of all the gold and silver that was looted by European invaders and demand the return of a sizable fraction of all the gold and silver that exists in Europe today.

    The Chinese could claim that melted down precious metals are demonstrably different to art objects. While the claim is true, as is the Grecian claim to the Elgin Marbles in Britain, it is unreasonable.

    The illegal sale of Russian icons and of items looted during Bush’s invasion of Iraq are recent events that can and should be addressed. There is, however, a reason for statutes of limitations on non-capital crimes. The reason is to avoid getting mired in litigation for which all witnesses are long since dead, and where reliable documentation is either impossible to obtain or properly evaluate.

    It happened the century before last. China, get over it.

  8. March 2, 2009 at 15:32

    The Vatican Must Return the Temple Treasures
    The Jews have prayed for 2,000 years to again see the Temple upon the Temple Mount. It’s past time for prayers alone: ACTION is necessary to put faith into practice!

    Will the pope act like Belshazzar or Cyrus?
    Will Rome learn from history and receive instruction from the Bible or harden their hearts and be destroyed like pharaoh and Babylon?

  9. 9 my way
    March 2, 2009 at 15:33

    Most of European countries will go bankrupt if they start to returning old returning treasures looted by them. Wrong time to start the discussion.

  10. March 2, 2009 at 15:39

    if something is stolen from a house the law see to it that the stolen items are returned to the owner going by this logic the lost treasure is on par with stolen items so it must be returned to the country were it was taken without any doubt..india has lost very many valuable treasures due to invasion and colonisation including the valuable king of diamonds kohinoor?
    its time to correct the past stealing of treasures by invading countries by returning the stolen ones and uphold the so called morality ?if not this stealing and transgressions due to greed will continue forever?

  11. 11 Anthony
    March 2, 2009 at 15:44

    To the Native Americans, their land was their National Treasure, so should we return that to them?

    -Anthony, LA, CA

  12. 12 Peter
    March 2, 2009 at 15:46

    @victork China did not invade Tibet . In 1959 when the Tibetans unilaterally declared independence , they went in with the cooperation of other lamas to reassert their sovereignty in Tibet. Tibet was lost to China during the period of the warring states where the Han emperors united all the warring parties including Tibet.
    That period pre dates the europeans annexation of the Americas , Australisia and India. The Chinese has never looted any countries treasurer instead like in Tibet they help to rebuild it

  13. 13 Donnamarie in Switzerland
    March 2, 2009 at 15:46

    @ VictorK

    Statutes and statuary: I believe that a statute of limitations should apply to the removal of cultural artifacts, but the point is well taken that people who administer glass cultural edifices should not throw heavy statuary.

    Given how many Chinese regimes stretching back into the mists of history and prehistory have decimated their own cultural history, we should rejoice that precious Chinese artifacts exist in places beyond the reach of whatever short-sighted regime is currently in control of a precious artistic heritage that has significance to the entire world, not only to a parochial China.

    March 2, 2009 at 15:50

    Yes. Stolen or lost artifacts/ treasures should be returned to their original country soonest possible.

    Here in Kenya, some tribal/ cultural artifacts locally known as “KIGANGO” that were four foot tall were traced to A museum in the United States after more than 20 years of disappearance.

    The treasures are believed to have been carved in late 1950’s as a commemoration of a fallen- death member of a family in Coastal Kenya.

    Most of these items were either stolen during the colonial era, or sold by individuals to dealers from foreign countries who re-sold them at a princely sum. Others were taken to foreign museums for study and were never returned.

    A spirited search has also seen the tracing of two vigango stolen from a Mijikenda homestead on the Coast, 20 years ago. The artefacts, made of termite-resistant hardwood posts that range in height but consist of a circle for the head and a rectangle for the body

    Prior to its disappearnce, the carving was used as a shrine or a place to hold rituals and when it disappeared misteries started to beffel the poor family; diseases, drought, deaths and other misfortunes.

    Some of the missing items are indispensable in the crafting of Kenya’s political past. They include a huge consignment of uniform, weapons and other material from Mau Mau freedom fighters handed over to Mzee Jomo Kenyatta at Ruringu Stadium, Nyeri. The stadium was a battlefield for the Mau Mau and it is believed that Kenyatta received the items in 1963, just before he became Kenya’s first president.

    With the reurn of the carving, the community held cleansing rituals to ward off the spells and normal life is back on track.

    I belief that disappearances of such “adored things” however minor they appear to the Western countries puts African states that have tried to guard their culture hitherto causes much mistery to the owners.

  15. 15 VictorK
    March 2, 2009 at 15:50

    A regime established by revolutionary violence has no moral and a doubtful legal claim on works of art created under the regime it overthrew. It’s like murdering a man and then laying claim to his property. The Bolsheviks weren’t the ‘heirs’ of the Tsars; Castro represented a break with Cuba’s past, not a natural development of it; and the Chinese Communists are not the successors, morally or legally, to the cultural artifacts created by the society & culture they subverted and destroyed. If there is any successor to the China of 3,000 years of history it’s Taiwan; only the Taiwanese are entitled to claim looted works of Chinese art.

    The Elgin Marbles were properly acquired with the permission of the established and recognised Ottoman rulers of Greece. If they were ever returned – and they shouldn’t be – wouldn’t Turkey have as good a claim as Greece? In fact, since there’s no reason to think that modern Greeks are the descendants of ancient Greeks (instead of the descendants of Hellenised Slavs and Albanians) in what exactly does the Greek claim to the Marbles consist?

    Payment for stolen goods doesn’t change their provenance, especially when there’s an owner with title to them. The Italian restitutions were right.

    Isn’t it now accepted that the thefts from Iraq (when Iraqis looted themselves) were at the time exaggerated?

  16. 16 VictorK
    March 2, 2009 at 16:02

    @Donnamarie: you make a very important point. Returning works of art to some places puts them at risk of being lost forever to the world.

    Islam forbids all representation of living things. It’s why the Taliban destroyed the statue of the Buddha. Should miniature paintings be returned to a Muslim country that may one day fall under Talibanesque rule?

    Returning priceless artifacts to most sub-Saharan African governments is just a long-winded way of ensuring they end up in the hands of private collectors, never to be seen by the public again.

    @My way: no – Europe has created infinitely more great works of art than a handful of European countries have looted. No country in the world, past or present, stands comparison with Italy for artistic creation.

    @Peter: you’re welcome to your Sino-Tibetan fantasies. Enough of us know better.

  17. 17 Tony Parkes
    March 2, 2009 at 16:12

    Interesting…… Ros to quote you. “……and it’s once again raised the issue of who owns items taken during past wars or colonial rule…..”

    and you conclude by …..”When and if they are found, should they be returned? Or if someone has paid money for them, should they have the right to keep them?”

    Ros, lets build the build a picture of two hundred or more years ago when some people went around the world “exploring”.

    You welcome a stranger to your land and home. They then come into your home, possibly attack, maim, destroy and kill and then plunder and steal your valuable religious or traditional possessions.

    Now they claim ownership of this following this. Years later, they then sell this openly for profit or pass this onto a state body to keep on your behalf as you are not to be trusted with your own religious, traditional or ceremonoius items.

    Ros, my question is, when is theft not theft, when is stealing not stealing, when is obtaining goods by deception not fraud, when is a crime no longer a crime.

    I presume the answers will be based on whatever standards we naturally have or standards that have set upon us by the rule of law based on our societies. Many of the societies that were plundered were not some savage like, illiterate, unstructured mad societies, rather quite advanced.

    I think you will find that the laws 200 years ago still hold now or do you feel that laws in general or specific rules of law should be applied differently per cirmcumstance. Afterall, were the same things happening everday in the “explorers” society or home.

  18. 18 VictorK
    March 2, 2009 at 16:18

    @Anthony: Donnamarie pointed out the need for a statute of limitations. Your N. American Indian example of ‘national treasure’ underlines why.

    Some Indian Tribes would themselves have acquired by force (if not fraud) from other tribes the land that they subsequently lost to Europeans. Wasn’t South America originally inhabited by pre-Indian natives who were overwhelmed and exterminated by Indians? They don’t even exist anymore to receive restitution of their ‘national treasure’. If you want to dig back into the past where will it all end? Who is entitled to what restitution? Besides, isn’t there this difference from works of art: a work of art is a finished product of inherent value; whatever value America has today as a society is entirely due to the efforts of the European pioneers and settlers, and owes nothing to the Indians.

  19. 19 ecotopian
    March 2, 2009 at 16:23


    “America, love it or give it back.” I’ve always loved that bumper sticker. And your right, it would prove interesting if they made that claim.

  20. 20 VictorK
    March 2, 2009 at 16:32

    @Tony Parkes – wasn’t Ros’s ‘when and if found’ question about the items looted from Iraq? What does that have to do with ‘200 years ago’, or ‘explorers’, or colonial resentment?

    Iraq’s history – or, rather, the history of the region we call Iraq – is one of succesive invaders and conquerors, Sumerians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Arabs, Mongols, Ottomans and (in the past 90 years) British and Americans. All of whom would have done their bit of looting of national treasures (the Mongols especially). Why get worked up about the last two – Brits and Yanks – given what’s happened over 4,000 years?

    It’s always a pity when interesting topics degenerate into anti-Western demonstrations.

  21. 21 J in Portland
    March 2, 2009 at 16:34

    Looting is looting, theft is theft…it does not matter on what scale….whether a candy bar or a sculpture.

    Items need to be returned. There is a dedication to history, heritage and decency that needs to be followed.

    I watched a report that indicated that there are still many many many items in the possession and hidden by Russian leaders that were found and pilfered during WWII, first by the Nazis and then by the Russians. These items need to be returned to their rightful owners.

    Wars don’t just kill/maim people and damage buildings, they also destroy and breakdown entire cultures. Unfortunately, this all comes down to money.

  22. 22 Ron S. from Ft Myers Florida
    March 2, 2009 at 17:05

    Theft is theft..period. During WW II, soldiers looted artifacts, bringing them back to the US. Or whatecer country they came from. Should they give them back to the country of origin? Absolutely. I have had tons of arguments over this but I still feel this way, and it will never change. Who CARES if it was an enemy, stealing is stealing. Return them to where they came from. It benefits everyone if you do.

  23. 23 Savane, Nairobi
    March 2, 2009 at 17:23

    Theft is theft, whether it’s done by a country (e.g colonial power, warv spoils) or an individual thief who comes into your home.

    If an item is of enough value for a thief to steal, and its owner to miss it, then, YES, they must be returned! Unconditionally and without delay!

    @ my way
    Are you suggesting that holding into to stolen artifacts is Europe’s solution to surviving the recession? And the countries from where they were stolen should be empathetic so that Europe can make some ‘Survival Money’? Seriously? Would you accept that offerfrom a thief that had been through your home?

    Return the national treasures. Put them in the museums and if you want to see them, pay the museum entry fee and spend as much time as you want looking at them!

    And if you must have it in your home, don’t forget to stop by the Museum Gift Shop!

  24. 24 Steve in Canada
    March 2, 2009 at 17:30

    Modern, recent, looting and theft of artifacts should be returned if it can be proven they were stolen…..

    i.e. a painting is stolen from the Louvre and turns up in a Los Angeles gallery – that should be returned.

    HOWEVER, historical conquests should not be considered the equivalent regardless of if they were technically stolen, etc from the original country.

    i.e. Egyptian or Roman antiquities in museums around the world should not be forced to return.

    Questionable ethics in how they were acquired but that’s history. Conquests, empires (cultural or political). If everything was returned from whence it came – Egypt, Baghdad, Athens and Rome would be overflowing with treasures, the “New World” would be barren of anything but pristine nature (because if art is returned, should not land and property?) Where does it end?

    If you take it too far I should not remain in Canada because I only arrived here because my grandparents moved from England to a former English colony… so I should move back to the Blackfriars area of London where my great-grandfather was born.


  25. 25 Tony Parkes
    March 2, 2009 at 17:48

    @VictorK…… I do not think that you read all of Ros’s question and postulation. It started with the most high profile i.e.Chinese artifacts to the latest examples in Iraq.

    Your statement about some colonial rant or sentiments does not follow the arguments presented or questions. It is not a question of one getting worked up, rather the primary issue here is one of lawlessness and crime.

    Your justification argument in support of your view is driven from a historical perspective based on succession which is similar to the activities of children in the play ground when corrected by teachers or person in charge i.e. he or she did it first, therefore someone else before me is culpable and not me regardless of whether I knew better.

    This is the reason why I asked if the “explorer” did not have laws of their own or a conscience/standard to guide them even as far back as two hundred years ago. We equate 200 years ago as the beginning of the industrial age thus trade, diplomacy and countries were established in full thus the reference.

    As important as this subject is, you will find that there a level of maturity and understanding out there to appreciate that some things, no matter how bad the injustice was, have to be left behind to pass with time e.g. your Native American note whilst those that are obvious and can successfully redressed to the owners, these should be i.e. the Chinese artifacts.

    You are overlooking the fact that the items were not just handed over without a fight, someone or a groups along the line that stood up paid the price for this with their lives. In Iraq today, democracy is the principle aim where the foundation is Justice.

    It is about the law then and now, and not some perceived injustices carried out many many years ago, Let us give out Justice…to all where we still can.

  26. 26 samuel
    March 2, 2009 at 17:58

    i wonder in the first place how come these artefact were put on for sale if truly it
    was proved it was stolen. they should have sort that one out before the sales procedure. if truly it was stolen then the man did well. well done.

  27. 27 Ogola Benard
    March 2, 2009 at 18:00

    I have attended many legal proceedings and the common sense here is that – you can not buy a loot or a stolen property as you will be considered to be the looter, thief or someone who connived with the culprits! money spent on buying loot and stolen property is also forfeited and henceforth marked as x-bit !

  28. 28 Dora
    March 2, 2009 at 18:13

    The danger is that you are making value judgements about who ‘deserves’ their stuff back and who doesn’t. I happen to agree with you about the Parthenon marbles but think whether or not the current Greeks are descended from Ancient Greeks is irrelevant and applies as much to any other country as a lot of movement has happened in 2500 odd years. I think that once you get into 1000’s of years it become world heritage but issues like The Benin Bronzes are still relevant today as African history has been misrepresented for so long and these objects should be a source of national pride.
    In many museums now the emphasis is on telling these stories of acquisition as well and working with the source country as much as possible.
    This is in no way West bashing but an acknowledgement of where these object came from and how they came here is important.
    Which leads me to say that I don’t think these objects should be in private collections, they should be seen by all and if they aren’t in museums but sold in the open market then their provenance should be intact no matter if it was stolen a hundred years ago. Much in the same way as you couldn’t sell a car if the papers weren’t intact.

  29. March 2, 2009 at 18:14

    As a volunteer for archaeological digs, I find looting repugnant especially by foreign governments, and suggest an international law that all artifacts must be returned to the country of origin regardless of public or private claims of ownership. Countries should be able to sue organizations and individuals holding such artifacts if they refuse to return them. The loss of the financial investment will be a deterrent to future such purchases.

  30. 30 John LaGrua/New York
    March 2, 2009 at 18:15

    A very complex issue .the Elgin marbles would have long been lost through theft or neglect.Other artifacts have been acquired by western museums who have been the conservators of priceless objects and allowed young people to see the wonder of ancient cultures To sequester these art works in some back water is foolish asthey inspire appreciation by viewers .Title is less important than access.and countries like Italy are swamped in treasures.The criteria should be ;Where are these works best displayed and where will art scholarship be best advanced.

  31. 31 Scott [M]
    March 2, 2009 at 18:16

    Is art more valuable then land? Apparently so. It is apparently alright to invade and take over land, but not alright to invade and steal objects. Where exactly do we draw the line? Should we return all the land and all the art back to the original cavemen? Perhaps these objects belong to all of us? To all of planet earth.

    Will China return Tibet to the Tibetans?

    I think there is a difference when objects are stolen from families versus nations. Nations are irrelevant to humanity.

  32. 32 Zainab from Iraq
    March 2, 2009 at 18:16

    Salam ,
    Should lost national treasures be returned?
    YES..Of course.
    If someone has paid money for them, should they have the right to keep them?
    No, they don’t have the right to keep them, cuz they are not stupid.. they know that these treasures belong all the people of the country.. for example, I consider all those who have stolen our Iraqi treasures , i consider them as theives, they must be panished.

  33. 33 Patrick in Hong Kong
    March 2, 2009 at 18:17

    Sure they were looted and they should be returned.
    Not quite sure just why China is shouting so loud – had they not been looted they’d been melted down and turned into a Mao statue in the 1970’s.
    I rather see them in Paris…

  34. 34 Tom D Ford
    March 2, 2009 at 18:19

    “WHYS: Should lost national treasures be returned?”

    Yow! Oops, there go all the British Crown Jewels!

  35. 35 Donald
    March 2, 2009 at 18:20

    Ancient “national” treasures are valuable because of their history. What the Chinese are suggesting now in demanding the return of artifacts “stolen” by war is actually describing an attempt by them to re-write their own history – to make it appear that their society was more successful than it was – in particular denying the weakness of their older culture in the face of invasions from people outside.

    Like killings in war are generally not regarded as murder, I think looting in war should be regarded as stealing, because we are talking of the history of society, not of individuals. History involves wars, as well as the creation of beautiful things which are looted in wars. Demanding return of artifacts is a form of historical denial of the society’s past weakness. Hopefully, modern western society is now spreading throughout the world, and so wars between modern societies will become a thing of the past, and we should put the argument of demanding the return of artifacts in the past, where it belongs.

  36. 36 Joanna Roberts
    March 2, 2009 at 18:20

    I wish to make 2 points:

    1. The discussion would be more productive if you separated the moral or ethical imperative of return of national treasures, the logistical issue of return of long-held objects and the question of financial reimbursement. If the moral/ethical question is fully addressed, the other 2 questions will be reframed as possible and will give way to answers.

    2. It is not only the international holding of national treasures that is worthy of discussion, but also the possession of indigenous treasures by nations. In the US, there is federal legislation mandating return of some treasures to Native Americans, but this type of legislation is not present in many post- or neo-colonial nations.

  37. 37 Boyd in Bermuda
    March 2, 2009 at 18:22

    i think they should end up back where they came from
    the countries that value them should bid for them
    get a fair price and then return them for the price
    china has a LOT of money
    buy them back!
    the real issue would be which items EXACTLY were stolen and if so return them or offer them for a good price to be returned
    think about pirate treasure and europe and the south americans they robbed and murdered for them
    indians lost BILLIONS to the british
    how many people hav ebenfitted from the thefts
    which they are
    its complicated
    depends on the item

  38. 38 juliana
    March 2, 2009 at 18:24

    This sounds like a recipe for xenophobia. Works of art, provided they were not stolen, belong to the world in a certain sense. Here in Cleveland Ohio, our art museum has wonderful Asian, South American, and African art. For those of us who cannot travel the world, this art brings the world to us. If it were not for the wonderful Chinese in The Cleveland Museum of Art, I might think of China as no more than a pirating manufacturer of cheap goods. Thanks to these works of art, I am reminded of the value of Chinese history and civilization.

  39. 39 Tom D Ford
    March 2, 2009 at 18:24

    I have thought some about art and who owns it and I have begun to think that the original artist ought to be considered the owner forever, and can only loan, lease, or rent it out to anyone interested and the art is then returned at the end of the loan, lease, or rental period or the death of the loanee, lessee, or renter.

    Just like humans, art ought not be sold.

    Just a thought.

  40. 40 Anthony
    March 2, 2009 at 18:24

    Ok, so listening to a lot of these people, we should return any gold to the South American Indians that was stolen. Thats just ridiculous.

    I say if there are any people alive from the era in which it was stolen, return it, if not, forget about it and let bygones be bygones.

    -Anthony, LA, CA

  41. 41 Kimberly
    March 2, 2009 at 18:26

    Don’t you feel that objects should be reviewed on a piece by piece basis. Looting is wrong. It should be investigated. However, if everything in every museum that originated in a country other than the one in which it is displayed is returned to their home country, there would be no museums. Museums allow us to experience universal beauty of humanity. What a sad place this world would be without them.

  42. March 2, 2009 at 18:27

    What a joke: China, which believes there are no such thing as human rights or property rights based on its actions toward Tibet and Formosa (Taiwan), which the Chinese government before 1948 has never had any jurisdiction over, and now the butchers of Beijing, the architects of Tianamen Square to claim property rights shows their laughable hypocracy.

    They deserve nothing. In fact, presumably the large deposit for bidders that they had to pay to be allowed to bid will be forfeited (and if the auction company didn’t demand a big deposit from each bidder, shame on them) and whoever bid second highest price be allowed to buy it.

    In the future the auction company when putting up something like this should require a minimum, oh, million dollar cash deposit for each bidder; the losing bidders all get their deposit back, if the winning bidder reneges he forfeits the deposit. So if he wants to expose his ‘duty’ well, fine, his stunt just cost him a million bucks. We’ll be happy to let anyone who wants to do this.

  43. 43 Tom D Ford
    March 2, 2009 at 18:29

    Reduced to it’s most basic, the question here is of who creates and owns the wealth by the sweat of their brow and who steals it by conquest, sleazy and/or nefarious business practices, or legislation.

    You solve this problem and you deserve some sort of Nobel prize for sure!

  44. 44 jane
    March 2, 2009 at 18:31

    It seems to me that this issue is resolved by two established legal interpretations. The first is that finders are keepers against all but the rightful owner. The second is that owners can abandon porperty. So: If things were removed from states which were caring for them, it is theft and should be returned. If they were discovered not being protected by the state, the finders should keep them. The best resolution, however, would be joint custody. Unfortunately, like with children, this requires two responsible adults…

  45. 45 Rui
    March 2, 2009 at 18:35

    I think no matter what the result is, the looted is the looted. It is illegal in any time. I do not care whose regime it is in China. The work of art belongs to Chinese, belongs to the people …

  46. 46 Troy from Afghanistan
    March 2, 2009 at 18:35

    Ask Mr Gandi if India is willing to give the Taj Mahal back to the Islamic world. Even if this could be achieved the Indian government wouldnt dream of doing it.


  47. 47 Ifunga
    March 2, 2009 at 18:36

    This is a no brainer. But, in typical Western behaviour, all sorts of formalities and laws are created to justify their Pilaging and down play their “obvious” theft. Look, if its yours its yours, if its not its NOT. How would would Brits and Americans feel if we pilged Big Ben or the Statue of Liberty and said “no, where not giving it back, get over it”. Oh, and this topic will create a long string of complaints: Indians, Chinese, Africans and many more people have been pilaged in one form or another. This would be a PR disaster for “law abiding”, “human rights respecting”, “civilised” western nations.

  48. 48 Scott in Cartago, Costa Rica
    March 2, 2009 at 18:37

    The argument raised on your program by the defenders of the British Museum’s retaining of the Elgin Marbles – that they were removed before Greece was a proper state – is specious on the face of it. Greece wasn’t a proper state back in those days, because of the meddling of foreign powers.

    Would your guest argue that when the Nazis looted the national treasures of Eastern Europe and France, that this was reasonable, because it was being looted from what were not proper states? How ludicrous!

  49. 49 Gregor
    March 2, 2009 at 18:38

    I think that China as a country has lost any right to these works of art after the Cultural Revolution. If the two bronzes had remained in China, they might very well have been destroyed by Red Guards, as were uncounted other priceless artefacts.

  50. 50 Derrick Hiebert-Flamm in Seattle, USA
    March 2, 2009 at 18:39

    This discussion reminds me of the polemy a few years ago when Spain claimed a find by treasure hunters of one of their galleons belonged to them even though the galleon was carrying HUGE amounts of loot stolen through war and slavery in the Americas. This issue was a travesty since Spain actually had the gall to believe that the cargo of that ship was theirs.

  51. 51 Fred in Portland OR
    March 2, 2009 at 18:39

    I have Native American Ancestors, and on behalf of all Native Americans, I would like to see all Corn (Maize), Gourds and Potatoes returned, or at least be paid for them.

    These foodstuff were given as gifts to the original European settlers so they’d be able to survive, and all the payment that my ancestors got back was genocide and persicution.

    Sound a little silly? Maybe to you, maybe not to me. Weigh that argument against the return of marbles and diamonds.

  52. 52 Eric Salem, Or
    March 2, 2009 at 18:43

    Easy, If they were stolen yes. If they were taken as spoils of war….. to bad.

  53. 53 Ogola Benard
    March 2, 2009 at 18:45

    I think when when these treasures are returned, they will improve on the tourism industry!

  54. 54 Fred in Portland OR
    March 2, 2009 at 18:45

    Maybe if we sent all the cool stuff like the Elgin Marbles to the Victoria and Albert, or whoever made all those wonderful plasters on display there, we could all have amazing copies, and return the orginals.

  55. 55 Ahmed in San Francisco
    March 2, 2009 at 18:45

    I do think that national treasures should be returned to the country of origin through some agreement, but I do find China’s claim somewhat double-standard when they occupy a country they took over just in this past century and refuse to give it back to it’s people that have become refugees from there rightful home let alone “national treasure”. The issue of Greece keeping Nazi loot is also distressing. I think if a country is serious about fostering international justice they should do so consistently.

  56. 56 Dora
    March 2, 2009 at 18:48

    The Native American GAVE those foodstuffs to the settlers, turns out it was one of the worst judgement calls ever, this however has nothing to do with the current discussion.

  57. 57 Venessa
    March 2, 2009 at 18:49

    This isn’t a black and white issue. Unless there is clear documentation the articles were stolen then it should be returned. Let’s not forget that the taking of some of these items actually preserved them.

  58. 58 Peter
    March 2, 2009 at 18:49

    @patrick in hong kong What America does to the statue of liberty is their business , should they want to knock it down even if the whole world loves it , we can’t go in and take it away from them.@victork The United Nation recognise PRC has the legitimate China and its sovereignty over tibet and Taiwan is its province.
    Get your facts right before you rant on your anti China tirade.

  59. 59 Glenn
    March 2, 2009 at 18:50

    The purpose and educational mission of museums should change as technology has changed– a hundred years ago the only way that a large number of people in a (usually developed, often imperial) foreign land could see an ancient sculpture was for someone to take it from it’s homeland and bring it overseas. Now we have amazing internet capabilities with which we can share the beauty and value of these objects while they rest in their homeland.

  60. 60 nora
    March 2, 2009 at 18:51

    The passions of collectors are as insane as sexual passion. The Maltese Falcon is still a classic movie because it documents this human twist. The control of meaning by governments and religion often boil down to ‘who got the icon.’

  61. 61 ecotopian
    March 2, 2009 at 18:52

    So, because they won’t be on the building, they shouldn’t be returned? What? That is nuts. They are theirs, who cares how many people see them. Geez, what a dumb thing to say.

    By the way. the woman on your show is the very epitome of condensation.

  62. 62 Scott [M]
    March 2, 2009 at 18:52

    We are allegedly all striving to be color-blind, but now we embrace nationalism! Why? Why does a collective group of people, calling themselves a nation, have the rights to objects that were once in their geographic area, which they may or may not have actually owned? These arguments are all superficial, no nation has the right to the land it is even on, let alone objects that once resided there. At some point people are given a second chance, so are objects. We can’t cling to the past for forever. These arguments in support really help to reinforce nationalism, which is a terrible thing.

  63. 63 Jason
    March 2, 2009 at 18:53

    I wonder if some of the antiquities in question are so well known and iconic due to the museums promoting them.

  64. 64 Tom D Ford
    March 2, 2009 at 18:53

    If you can solve this argument about all the world valuing and respecting art you will have gone a long way towards arguments about valuing and respecting human beings.

    Interesting parallels!

  65. 65 Tam SK
    March 2, 2009 at 18:54

    By legalised the looting is tantamount to condoning war crime and the stronger can take advantage of the weaker. Is this the message we try to pass on? And the rights of ownership is by suppression the weaker?

  66. 66 Spiros
    March 2, 2009 at 18:54

    I find it completely irresponsible from the BBC to not have an expert from Greece on the subject on the Elginian marbles and only convey the views of the current particiapants – which is completely biased.

    Have a proper debate onthe subject!!!

  67. 67 Ifunga
    March 2, 2009 at 18:59

    ….first its saftey….then it’s fancy jargon….now it’s ticket sales. Stop running in circles, its pilaged! stolen! no if, but, well’s, JUST GIVE IT BACK!

  68. 68 VictorK
    March 2, 2009 at 19:00

    The example of Gandhi’s glasses is strange. Has India been reduced to valuing such things as ‘national treasures’?

    Why does Mr Gandhi assume that the Koh-i-noor should be returned to India and not Pakistan (it was owned by a succession of Mughal princes) or Iran (it was owned by a Shah)? And why shouldn’t it be returned to a private owner, rather than a state?

    Everyone with the slightest knowledge of Africa knows that African artworks, if returned, will eventually be looted and sold to private collectors in the West. It’s wishful thinking to expect anything else.

    Re the stolen treasures of the Jews of Bagdhad: of course it’s not discussed – it gives no opportunity to attack and rave against the West.

  69. 69 Steve
    March 2, 2009 at 19:00

    National Arts belongs to the people of that Nation of origin. Whether or not that the legal country as what we know today has yet to exits when the arts are stolen or taken under duress is totally irrelevant. If I put a gun to your head and say give me your wallet, now do I have the rights to that wallet? This is the same exact principle behind the Chinese artifacts that was taken by the Imperial forces of British and French.

  70. 70 rd
    March 2, 2009 at 19:01

    It occurs to me that since the UK has not been occupied for a millennium or more, there are very few British artifacts overseas; it therefore makes it hard for Brits to be empathetic.

    How would the British feel if the Magna Carta was permanently on display in Paris?

    Ex-pat in California

  71. 71 Peter
    March 2, 2009 at 19:01

    As an American, if I had to travel to Singapore to see the Declaration of Indepence or the Consititution I would be angry. It is our document, it is not solely about the ideals it contains.

  72. 72 Ali
    March 2, 2009 at 19:04

    At the heart of this discussion is the supermacy issue as your guest speaker has pointed out. Countries such as UK, France, and Germany are the biggest looters of ancient art. UK looted India, Iran, amongst many other nations of their ancient and historic riches. All should be returned to the original country, forget the arugment that the new, 21st century, nation is not the old nation! That is plain old rubbish.

    However, there should be a panel of global experts, all with equal voting rights (unlike the permanent members of UN’s security council and their veto power) with equal representation from the country from which the items were looted, to vote on the safety of the item in the original nation. If it is deemed that, for whatever reason, the origination country cannot safekeep the items, then they shall be stored at a museum and the cost of the upkeep shall be assessed to the nation to which the piece(s) belong to.

    UK, USA, Germany, France et al looted countries of their ancient riches, and USA to a lesser extent, and it’s now time for payback much the same way some Swiss and US banks were forced to recompensate some fo the holocaust survivors.

    Iowa, USA

  73. 73 Yasmine
    March 2, 2009 at 20:10

    yes, i think they should be returned to their rightful owner because it’s part of their history/culture. If someone else has the artifcat for show and tell,then it won’t have the same truthful meaning and it would get lost in translation.

  74. 74 Stewart
    March 2, 2009 at 20:26

    Thieves often preserve their loot. It doesn’t make them less thievish. And if stuff is stolen and kept for a long time it doesn’t get less stolen. These things like the Elgin Marbles and other property that was taken from poor and powerless countries by wealthy people from developed countries need to be returned to their proper homes. As artifacts illustrating the history of a place, they are more useful in their proper setting. The Elgin Marbles would be much more impressive in a museum in Athens, where you could look up the hill and see where they came from, than they are in a (I thought) rather dim exhibit hall in the BM.

    I think these artifacts ought to be returned without charge, but if the countries that have them demand some sort of ransom to protect art lovers and museums then maybe there can be some sort of wealth-sharing where all the developed-world institutions that benefitted from the systematic looting of poorer countries over the last couple of centuries could chip in something.

  75. 75 Syed Hasan Turab
    March 2, 2009 at 21:13

    Baghdad use to be a big market of stolen antique’s even during Saddam Time.

  76. 76 gail
    March 2, 2009 at 21:17

    This topic of returning treasures to the land of origin deserves many more days of discussion.
    For thirty years since the early 1970s I served as the director of aquapeace in the villages along the Aegean coast of Greece. I remember talking with Melina Mercouri who was the Minister of Culture…she visited a tiny village next to ours where she had close relatives, because the area is so beautiful.
    when i told her we were working to end toxic pesticide spraying from helicopters…which we accomplished in 1992 after 7 years of non-stop activism, she hugged me and said “I dont believe the Brits should give back the Elgin marbles until there are laws drawn up in the Greek Parliament to clean up the air over Athens and Thessaloniki, two of Europe’s most pollluted cities….the marbles deserve a place where they can escape what Greeks cannot, and that is the polluted skies over Greece.
    Amen Melina..

  77. 77 Archibald in Oregon
    March 2, 2009 at 21:53

    “and to the victor goes the spoils….??.” The turks shot the nose off of the great sphinx in egypt for target practice, how do you quantify that loss…….. All these conclusions ignore the cost in human life that was paid for these wars and yet people still squabble over the rights to material possessions. If you want to stop the looting and theft, stop placing monetary values on pieces of cultural history that are invaluable to their countries of origin. Orphan artifacts should all end up in national museums, so more can benefit from the histories they impart. What is ownership if it has no meaning other than a dollar value.

  78. 78 Josiah Soap, USA
    March 2, 2009 at 22:00

    We stole Africans from their homeland, so should we send them back? I think not. Things have happened and that is history, why does everyone want to right the wrongs that took place many years. Just how far back do we go with this, before you know it we will be trading and swapping artifacts that were supposedly looted thousands of years ago. learn from your mistakes and move forwards, i.e. don’t loot treasures but we do not need to turn the clock back.

  79. 79 Maccus Germanis
    March 2, 2009 at 22:10

    The assumption that an artifact has been looted is dangerous. Most likely the Chinese bidder will not be allowed to bid on future items. If the example becomes endemic, then auctions will no longer he held. Artifacts will not be properly valued, discarded rather than saved. By whatever unscupulous means that seller may have procured an item, wrecking the market is more detrimental to the recovery of artifacts that buying items of dubious ownership.

  80. 80 Nate, Akron
    March 2, 2009 at 22:11

    The most valuable cultural treasure and asset, that which is most tied up in sentiment, pride and value, is land. It is where ancestors were buried, lives were lived, indeed what shaped a people. So should all countries give back any land to native peoples that has been stolen? How far back should it go? The whole of the Americas go back to the native peoples? This argument of returning ancient stolen things is obviously nonsense.
    So, as a practical way to solve the issue, I think that an object that has been proved to be stolen from someone living, or their parents or grandparents, should be returned. Go any farther back than that and everyone involved is dead.
    On the issue of things that can be proven to have actual national significance, there will obviously be politics involved, but I think that the holder of the item should be compensated by the country that wants it back, and perhaps an agreement to have it brought back for a display every once in a while. Gandhi’s glasses surely are of the most importance to India, but having a guarantee such things will be able to be seen by others around the world will enhance the legacy and importance of such items, not diminish them.

  81. 81 Thomas Murray
    March 2, 2009 at 22:46

    This is such a delicious issue that I couldn’t resist comment.

    About a year ago, curators at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles were embroiled in scandal when it was learned that quite a few pieces in their collection were purloined from somewhere else. And their collection of antiquities is almost too extensive for a museum that new. (The place can’t be over 20 years old.) So they had to give them back.

    Though exposure to such artifacts benefits both cultures connected to them — both for the represented culture and the viewer, even better that the artifact is preserved — but it’s still theft. King Tut’s exhibit is currently in Texas, I hear. But when his US tour is over, he’s still taking the boat back to Egypt.

    Such a thorny issue. I hear you Germans, French and Brits are currently also “safekeeping” quite a haul from Greece and Egypt. Dibs anyone?

    –I’m not even going to mention what’s in the basement of our own museum here in blustery Louisville, Kentucky, US.

  82. 82 Dora
    March 2, 2009 at 22:50

    I don’t understand what I did wrong? It was not a personal attack or abusive. I was making the point that giving something freely no matter what the consequences is not the same as things being stolen……

  83. 83 Savane, Nairobi
    March 2, 2009 at 22:52

    This IS a clear (black and white) issue.

    Theft IS theft! If you take something that doesn’t belong to you, that’s theft! What you’ve taken is not yours!

    I highly doubt thieves leave notes saying: “By the way, I just thought it would only be right for me to let you know that I stole the following items! Please signify acceptance of this theft by signing and returning this note, so that I have a clear record of this theft, just in case this is disputed in the future! Don’t forget to keep a copy for yourself for your records too!”

    As for justifying the theft by saying these items were preserved? That’s a ‘winning’ argument! And it’s patronisingly arrogant! The I-stole-because-I-can take better-care-of-them-than-you-can is NOT a defence!!

    Theft IS theft!

    If you’re ever robbed, don’t report it as a crime, it’s a public service for the betterment of mankind! The thief’s just taking ‘rightful possession’ of something that you don’t know how to take care of and therefore you don’t deserve it! It’s for your own good! So stop complaining! Be thankful someone who cares will now be looking after it better than you can!

    Could someone please explain why then is theft a universally accepted crime?

    As for keeping stolen pieces because you can’t visit everywhere as a justification to keep them? Huh??? Museums have been loaning pieces to other museums all the time. Loan: for ‘to lend/borrow for a period of time on condition of return to its rightful owner!’. It’s not a concept, it really happens! You don’t have to steal to do it!

    Come on, people!

    Theft IS theft!

  84. 84 Peter
    March 3, 2009 at 05:58

    A few Looted national treasures are in museums. Most are kept by private collectors . God knows what they use it for. I ‘ve seen revered icons like Buddha ‘s used as clothes hangers with bras and panties covering the head. The atheist swiss was non repentant when I told him to respect the relics. Claims that looted national treasures are preserved by private collectors is an unlikely .

  85. 85 Marri
    March 3, 2009 at 06:27

    It can never be denied that occupation of any kind by one nation by another has led to exploitation of every kind. Since we have fast lost our basic principles, I believe it is the correct thing to return treasures to couontries from whence they came instead of using them to hike up their selling prices and keeping them as ‘stolen goods’.
    We should do everything we can to return to basic good human conduct.

  86. 86 Roberto
    March 3, 2009 at 08:30

    RE “” once again raised the issue of who owns items taken during past wars or colonial rule “”

    ————— Once again, it’s time to reiterate that those who hold the power own the objects. The way it was, is, and always shall be.

    This Chinese billionaire a modern phenom with no higher aspiration to lobby the return Tibet to Tibetans since so much more money can be made stripping them of their culture and inserting obediant Chinese culture and so on.

  87. March 3, 2009 at 13:11

    A Couple of years ago, there was an exhibit at our national muesum of mostly East African artefacts including the jacket worn by Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi.Thr artefacts were on loan from a mueseum in England. As i marvelled at the beauty of my heritage i was also filled with such a feeling of anger and indescribable pain that we were being loaned what belongs to us. If it is for safe keeping we thank the keepers but would like them back now thank you very much. Secondly,even though Kenya as we know did not exist the people of Kenya who are the owners of the artefacts continue to exist and have a right to glory in the splendour of our heritage.

    I strongly believe that for Africa in particular to restore our pride and faith in our selves all the artefacts must be returned. Finally does the West not have its on artefacts?

  88. 88 Dora
    March 3, 2009 at 15:17

    “It occurs to me that since the UK has not been occupied for a millennium or more…”
    I’m afraid your history is a little out, the UK has been populated for much longer than that.

    For me there seems to be a missmatch between what feels like the right thing to do and what in practice can be done to make everyone happy. I’m thinking more of African, Iraqi etc objects here but as has been mentioned before Athens is terribly polluted and a climate controlled area to put the marbles did not exist untill recently, besides they were bought.
    Anyway it seems right to me to return objects but as VictorK says it would be a crying shame if they were to be plundered and sold again by corrupt governments.
    I think if these items were seen for their intrisic cultural value and not in monetary terms it would make these decisions much easier and stop the trade in looted material.

  89. 89 VictorK
    March 4, 2009 at 07:48

    @ Peter: you must learn to read with attention what people write before trying to catch them out: ‘ [where] there is today a government of the same territory which is legally, culturally and morally…’ continuous with a preceding state.

    Nobody in their right mind would claim that the regime of Communist China is morally or culturally the heir of Imperialist or Nationalist China. It’s legal claim is only slightly less dubious. You are fantasising if you believe that Taiwan was ever a province of Red China, however diplomatically convenient the UN may find it to pretend that that was or is the case.

    Paul Robinson put the case very well for the sublime hypocrisy of the Beijing Dictatorship: inflexibly opposed to property and human rights as a matter of Communist ideology; but claiming artifacts on the basis of…property and human rights!

    All auction houses should be on guard in future about bids from any part of China: the Chinese can’t steal treasures for nothing the way they stole Tibet.

  90. 90 dejavous
    March 4, 2009 at 12:24

    Stolen treasure needs to be returned to rightful owners.In the future Christies and other auction houses need to be thinking about more than making a buck.Stealing is wrong .Its as simple as that.I read some bloggers say China itself has stolen millions …..well the arguement is not about China .Its about stolen treasure.Will you rob a thiefs house for justice?

  91. 91 richard
    March 4, 2009 at 17:18

    Who owns any of this? Is it the family of the artist or the family of the patron? It is certainly not the governments on either side. Maybe Mongolia should claim it based on the conquest of the Han Chinese and claim all of China as well. The dead hand of history drags on the progess of modren man like a sore that just won’t heal.

  92. March 4, 2009 at 23:39

    Why is it that Nazi Looted Art must be returned to its Jewish owners when European Looted Chinese Art must not be returned to its Chinese owner. Is it because Jews are White and Chinese are Colored?

    The Western World seems to interested in Tibet. How many people know the history of China and Tibet? Those who do not care to know the history impose Western values on this relationship. Perhaps they should read or listen to the CD Russ Kick’s Everything You Know About God Is Wrong. Or read the last page of Jean Gimpel’s The End of the Future: The Waning of the High-Tech World: “China will progressively dominate the Pacific Basin and beyond and, for the second time in her long history, she will have entered and era of growth in which her psychological drive and here technological evolution will rise in parrallel curves. china is at the beginning of a cycle that could last a millenium, while western civilisation stands at the end of a cycle that is already 1,000 years old.” This was published in 1995.

    Therefore put away your racism and treat the Chinese fairly. If there are any hypcrites they are all Western.

  93. March 6, 2009 at 00:02

    If it is against the law in any country to steal or be in possession of stolen property, both the thief and receiver of stolen goods would go to prison for their crime. So whats the difference in that a country steals an item from another country and is asked to return them, surely the stolen items should be returned,.

    Whats “sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander”. Stealing is simply theft, and the thief who steals usually go to prison. In the above case whereby a country has taken treasured items from another country, the taker should be made to return the treasure and to pay compensation for refusing to return the treasured items, as it had no legal right to the treasure in the first place.

    Its no difference if the crown jewels were stolen and later to be found in another country, should they be allowed to keep it?. not blomin likely.

  94. April 15, 2009 at 23:21

    Who is the VictorK (not prepared to sign his name?) who speaks like a British Museum spokesman? I am amazed at the nonsense we are reading about people not having a right to their nation’s cultural and archaelogical artifacts because their governments have not all kept the same political system through the ages. VictorK insults the Chinese and says that they have no claim to their nation’s heritage because they had a Mandarin government and then a Marxist one, and so on… is he trying to tell us that a whole nation suddenly loses its heritage because they have a change of government, whether Marxist, capitalist, revisionist or otherwise? He also claims the Greeks have no claim to the looted Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum. With his logic we in Athens then do not own today the Parthenon itself which is here in Athens! VictorK – stop being a mouthpiece for the British Museum, declare your full name and allegiances and start an honest conversation when you have stepped out of the anonymity that you are writing under.Otherwise stop provoking people who have had their cultural heritage stripped by those who trafficked in millions of people (British controlled African slave trade), stole cultural items by acts of war or deceit (no receipt was ever given for the Partheonon Marbles by the Greek people), and waged wars to impose on the (Mandarin) Chinese to buy narcotics (opium) from British traders, sacking the Summer Palace in the process. The Parthenon Marbles will be returned, it is up to the British governement to see that this is done as soon as possible.

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