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Should Works of Art Be Repatriated to Their Places of Origin?

Should Works of Art Be Repatriated to Their Places of Origin?

Art repatriation refers to the return of works of art or cultural objects to their country of origin or former owners. These items were forcefully taken away from their original owners or creators in their homelands as a result of war, colonialism or imperialism. Repatriation is a hotly debated subject which is ongoing and its fire has little hopes of entirely dying out. Staunch giants and scholars and people in authority such as art curators, art critics, art historians, art teachers, politicians and other well meaning personalities have expressed their views on this controversial subject of restitution of creative products to their places of origin.

The issue of art repatriation and the conflicts it’s engulfed in is deep and vast. Some argue in favour of the repatriation of artworks to their former owners while others strongly object due to equally sound high currency opinions. This essay seeks to discuss the subject on the repatriation of works of art and the efforts put in by global agencies and associations for the repatriation of works of art and the challenges that have ensued. It will then probe the discussion further from both angles on whether to repatriate these African art and cultural artifacts currently adorning the Western museums and stately house of the upper European class to their countries of origin.

Several efforts have been put in place by the various global bodies and agencies in charge of human welfare and inter-national peace to repatriate objects that were illegally acquired by their current owners. Various conventions and declarations have been laid to ensure that the restitution of these cultural artefacts is securely returned to their places of origin. These efforts have met some subtle successes while the challenges are herculean and heinous.

The first effort to repatriate works was the institution of the Lieber code (General Order #100) in 1843 designed by Francis Lieber who was tasked by the US president Abraham Lincoln to propound a set of rules for governing the confederate of prisoners, noncombatants, spies and property thus cultural objects. It is sad that the code allowed the destruction of cultural property under military necessity resulting in the abolishment of this code.

In 1954, the Hague document was developed following the great devastation of the World War II and the great looting of cultural objects and art. This document also met various criticisms because it favoured ‘market nations’ thus wealthy countries over the ‘source nations’ who are mostly poor.

Another effort of repatriation was undertaken by the UNESCO Convention against Illicit Export and the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of illicit Appropriation in November 14, 1970. Like its predecessors, the terms in the convention were highly rejected because it was too broad and not specific. Also, it prompted black market deals on the selling of these cultural objects.

Recently, most countries are embracing the settlement of repatriation issues with the ‘Mutually Beneficial Repatriation Agreements (MBRAs). This document calls for the settlement of disagreements by opposing parties flexibly in a manner that is beneficial to both sides. This mode of arbitration between owner countries and keeper countries of items will certainly have its downsides.

Some of these obstacles are:

1. Poor legislative approaches developed among signatory states.

2. Failure to establish a system to resolve issues of ownership and compensation.

3. Some works of art and cultural objects do not have clear information on the history to help in ascertaining its place of origin.

4. Sometimes there are several speculations regarding the origin of the work of art making it difficult in knowing the original owners.

5. Legal battle for repatriation of works of art is lengthy and costly.

The question is why are some countries campaigning vigorously for the repatriation of the arts to their homelands? Numerous reasons are often cited. Analyses of items that are called for by their countries of origin are generally famous and valuable works that are paramount to the historical and cultural documentations of those countries. These cultural objects are a symbol of cultural heritage and identity and the return of such historical artworks is a hallmark of the pride of every country and thus must be repatriated. A return of such works calls for a special welcoming ceremony as if a long standing member of the society who has been imprisoned and is now freed is returning home.

Furthermore, advocates for the repatriation of works of art to their places of origin argue that the encyclopedic museums such as the British Museum, Musee du Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art who are the main keepers of the prestigious artistic creations of various countries house them out of the view and reach of the cultures that owns them. It is also very distressing that the encyclopedic museums that house most of the world’s artworks and artifacts are located in Western cities and are the privilege of European scholars, professionals and people. This is quite unfair because the keepers are shielding the works from their owners which is not appropriate and civilized in a free democratic world in which we find ourselves.

Again, some ethnic societies and nations dare need some repatriated works to be able to reconstruct their national history which is a stepping stone for any country’s survival and hope of sustenance in the future. This has been the case of the Benin court ritual objects which the Nigerians need to write the histories of their forebears. Wouldn’t it be illegal and even a crime to deny the return of works of such great significance to their rightful owners?

In the same train of thoughts, items are best appreciated and understood in their original and cultural context. Many artifacts have special cultural value for a particular community or nation. When these works are removed from their original cultural setting, they lose their context and the culture loses a part of its history. Owing to this, objects have to be repatriated back to their homelands. This accounts for why there are false interpretations associated with some of the African masterpieces that find their homes now in ‘foreign’ lands.

Also, the taking away of the creative products permanently destroys the archaeological sites which could have been set as a tourism site to generate income for the owners or countries of origin. This in the view of the author could have added to the economic strength of the country of origin which in Africa is mostly financially pulverized.

Moreover, the possession of the artworks taken under the sad conditions of war, looting, imperialism and colonialism is unethical and still suggests continued colonialism. To portray and ensure total liberation and freedom from colonized states, these creative objects must be returned.

In addition, when objects which are in fragments are repatriated back to their homelands, they can be consolidated with their other parts to achieve a whole for the meanings of the works to be properly gleaned. This is the case of the Parthenon’s marble sculptures of the Athena Temple which is now in the British Museum in London. The ancient Greeks who are the owners believed that sculptures bring their subjects to virtual life, and therefore completeness or wholeness is an essential feature of an imitative or representational art.

There are many scholars and other well meaning educators and individuals who vehemently disapprove and even oppose the repatriation of items and other cultural objects to their countries of origin. One of their arguments is that art is a part of a universal human history and that ancient products of diverse cultures promotes inquiry, tolerance and broad knowledge about cultures. To them, having works of diverse cultures would help in erasing cultural monopoly which is a chief causative agent against global unity. Curators and directors of museums of art assert that when a museum has works of many cultures, it introduces visitors to a diverse range of art to help deface the ignorance people have about the world.

Artistic creations transcend national boundaries as well as the cultures and peoples that created them. Therefore a deliberate lineation or segregation of an artwork to a particular country limits the scope and understanding of the work.

Also, it is believed that the Western Art museums are dedicated to the professional stewardship of the works in their care. They are believed to have the proper infrastructure to house the items. Therefore, the security and protection of the works are guaranteed. This cannot be said of the seemingly poor African states who are asking for the repatriation of the arts. They lack the infrastructural structure to protect the works when they are repatriated back to their home soil.

However, this is an understatement because much of the artworks transported out of colonized countries were crudely removed and damaged and sometimes lost in transportation. The issue of security and protection of works of art is still subject to debate. Owners of the objects might have the necessary infrastructure available to keep the repatriated works. However, judging correctly little can be said of this owing to the heap of economic load already resting on the feeble shoulders of these ‘source nations’.

Another important issue that bars the repatriation of creative works is with respect to the claimant of the total ownership of the works of art. This issue is aggravated when many countries, cities, and museums are in the possession of parts of an artwork. Where should be the designated “home” of the reunited work? Who should be the ultimate owner of the creative masterpieces? To curb this challenge, many scholars, art directors and curators opines that it is best not to repatriate their items back to their homelands.

It is a hard truth that must be accepted that African works lavishly displayed in the museums and other public views in the Western lands especially Europe may never see their homelands again. The debate to repatriate artworks will be ongoing though some efforts are made by some nations and agencies to return products that were acquired illegally to their original homeland.

The author opines that cultural objects that have historical significance and could assist in the reconstruction of a country’s history must be returned. However, those that are locked in encyclopedic museums for the consumption of the populace which are not indispensably needed in rewriting the history of a country should not be repatriated. Their correct interpretations must however be inquired from their original owners. Since income will be gleaned, the original owners of the works must be compensated or remunerated so that they can share the gains with the museum that is keeping the arts.

Again, there must be mutual understanding and agreement between the original owners of the works and the museum to arrive at a consensus that is favourable for all of them. It will also be prudent that parties involved must lay out measures of displaying the products occasionally to the citizens of the country of origin so that the viewing of the creative pieces so that they would not be just the preserve of only the privileged Europeans but also the poor owners of such marvelous creations.

A combined effort with the view of reaching amicable consensus on the part of both the host nation and country of origin if mapped out well could help in reducing the hunting menace of restitution of artworks to their countries of origin.


UNESCO (1970, November 14). Convention on the means of prohibiting and preventing the Illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property.