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I am standing on the moving walkway in the Tower of London, staring at some of the most exquisite pieces of the Crown Jewels, when I see the Koh-i-noor Diamond. Quick as a flash, I break the glass, grab the diamond, and run, screaming, “It’s not yours, it’s not yours, it’s India’s…”
As farfetched as my dream is (the glass is likely shatter-proof), the question of ownership is not. Today, museums across Europe “own” allegedly stolen artwork, including the Koh-i-noor Diamond, which European monarchies looted from their colonies. Arguing among other things that these pieces were legitimately acquired, museums have repeatedly refused to return them to their country of origin. Indeed, despite calls from the Indian government for the return of the Koh-i-noor Diamond, England has thus far refused to acquiesce. The same has held true for Greece’s Elgin marbles — which were looted from the Parthenon by the Earl of Elgin — and Egypt’s Rosetta Stone.
Families of those whose artwork was misappropriated by the Nazis during the Holocaust and sold in the aftermath of World War II have recently picked up the banner for the return of wrongfully acquired art to the rightful owners with much greater success, filing and winning (PDF) lawsuits against both nations and museums in North America and Europe. Indeed, on September 1st, U.S. District Court Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle ruled that the descendants of a Jewish Hungarian art collector could sue Hungary for the return of artwork that Hungarian officials and the Nazis seized during World War II. In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide this month whether to hear the case of Martin Grosz, the son of celebrated Expressionist painter George Grosz, and Martin’s sister-in-law Lillian, against the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City regarding two oil paintings and a watercolor that the Nazis also allegedly confiscated.
To be sure, the atrocities of the Holocaust are much too recent to be swept under the rug. With survivors alive to provide eyewitness accounts and documentation of Nazi plundering, it is easier to prove claims of the misappropriation of art. The same cannot be said for the national treasures of Europe’s former colonies, many of which were looted over 150 years ago. Instead, the prevailing argument is that because these pieces were acquired legally “according to the standards of that time,” they should be permitted to remain in the Louvre, the British Museum, and the Prado Museum, among others.
Such arguments, however, merely condone the wrongdoings of previous generations. Given the growing body of precedent worldwide supporting the return of wrongfully acquired artwork to the descendants of the Holocaust victims who originally owned them, perhaps it is time to apply these principles to national treasures like the Koh-i-noor Diamond, the Elgin Marbles, and the Rosetta Stone. These pieces are to their countries of origin what the Statue of Liberty is to the United States, Stonehenge is to England, and the Arc de Triomphe is to France: symbols of national identity and pride. To keep them locked behind glass cases in Europe is to celebrate the plunder and pillaging of colonialism.
– Swathi Padmanabhan
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