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.

The 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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4 Responses to Art Crimes: Should Europe Return Looted Art?

  1. Caitlin Angelette says:

    Hey Swathi,

    This is definitely a complicated issue, and a very vocal part of me is screaming “of course you send the stolen stuff back!” But, and perhaps this applies more to the Elgin Marbles than to the Koh-i-noor Diamond, another part of me says that these treasures are world heritage, not just the heritage of one country. Everyone in Western Civilization is the cultural descendant of Ancient Greece. Do these pieces of our history belong to one country more than another? (Of course, that opens up the question of why Great Britain gets to keep them over everyone else, but…) Perhaps the best solution, rather than leaving them in a country who arguably procured them illicitly or sending them to the country where they cam from, but is unlikely to attract as much attention, we should send these works around, country to country, as an example of the things that unite us. Logistical problems abound, but I think in the case of these ancient treasures, nationalism alone is not a strong enough argument for full possession.

  2. Swathi Padmanabhan says:

    Colton, I do recognize the good that has come from having these objects in the hands of trained experts, and I appreciate the work museums have done to share them with the world. I also know that many countries still lack the resources necessary to safely maintain the condition of these objects if they were indeed to be returned. However, if we continue to operate with this mentality, when will we start to take countries who are now just emerging from their colonial pasts seriously? It is time for former colonies to take responsibility for their own heritages. Perhaps western institutions (i.e. the Louvre or the MoMA or the British Museum) could partner with Europe’s former colonies and assist them in developing their own museums to display their national treasures.

  3. Colton Cline says:

    Hi Swathi. Great post! What do you make of the argument that some of these acquisitions actually helped to preserve the pieces for posterity? For instance, a lot of ancient Greek and Roman artifacts may not have survived if they had not been taken by archeologist from other nations.

  4. Katie Brown says:

    As a past visitor of the British museum, this post struck a chord with me, as I recall the mixed feelings I had when viewing cultural treasures like the Rosetta Stone. Museums claim to diligently trace the chain of provenance of each piece they acquire in order to determine any illegal links along the chain, but it is unclear what level of proof a museum requires before determining that it would be unethical to keep the art. I will be following the suit of Martin Grosz in hopes that the Supreme Court will decide to hear this case and make a definitive statement about how museums should handle claims of Nazi-stolen art.