Museums are going through a major shift, hit by the blows of the pandemic, by questions being asked about the source of donors’ money (the Sackler family name has been removed from museums around the world), as well as by various protestors who think throwing soup at artworks will garner support for their cause.
In their earliest days, the world’s great museums were about bringing the world of knowledge under one roof. The “museum of everything” emerged from the same enlightenment culture that gave us the value of the liberal arts, and the result was institutions like the British Museum and the Smithsonian, holding artefacts from every corner of the globe.
In addition to holding the world in one place, with the increase of tourism in the twentieth century, major museums became destinations for the world, as foreign tourists make up a large percentage of visitors at any such venue. (For better or for worse, the “must see” aspect means a 10-deep throng taking selfies in front of the Mona Lisa). Yet today’s museums are uneasy with their past, and are facing questions about items in their collections in the present.
For centuries, many museums built their collections through donations and loans. Part of the reason for this is that keeping a Rembrandt isn’t cheap (insurance premiums will be astronomical). By putting it on long-term loan in a museum, the owner outsources that cost to them, and also potentially increases the painting’s value by making it better known. At the same time, tax relief for donations made museums favored recipients of philanthropists’ largesse.
Over the decades, many institutions gratefully accepted donations of exotic art or the Old Master that your great uncle picked up in Florence. They didn’t ask too many questions—and indeed answers often didn’t exist, particularly for items that had been passed down for generations. And this brings us to the dilemma many museums are facing today, as questions are asked about the provenance of some of these objects, and debate rages over whether they should be returned to their places of origin.
This debate started several decades ago with Natural History museums, some of which had collected human remains (and in some cases, hideously, kept living people on display in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries). The claims of descendants or tribal members to their clan members’ remains seem clear-cut. But the debate has broadened since the “racial reckoning” of 2020 and demands to return items have increased in pitch.
One cause célèbre of the repatriation debate of recent years has been the Benin Bronzes. These artworks, created in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, are a collection of several thousand plaques that were in the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin. During the “Benin Expedition” of 1897, a raid on Benin City by British forces, the bronzes were seized. They made their way to collections in the UK, and a public auction in 1898 also put them in the hands of private collectors and public museums.
The institutions holding them are now under pressure to return the bronzes to the nation of Nigeria (Benin as an independent state no longer exists), which plans a new national museum to display them. Last year, the Smithsonian returned its collection of 29 Benin Bronzes, all obtained during the raid, under their new “Ethical Return Policy.” Cambridge University returned 100.
As David Frum (whose parents were collectors of African art) commented in The Atlantic last year, this situation also represents a paradox. For years the campaign was to get African art into Western museums (and out of ethnographic collections) so that it would be considered on the same level as fine art from other parts of the globe. But now, in less than a generation, there has been a shift to demand this art be moved out of those museums again.
Should museums only exhibit work of their own culture, rather than bringing the world to visitors?
In addition, what does it mean to “return” these items to Nigeria, a nation-state that did not exist at the time of their creation? Frum argued that “A standard that art should belong to the present-day government of the place where that art was created centuries ago is not, to me, sustainable.”
In the case of the bronzes, there is a rival claim. The current Oba (the descendant of the traditional King) believes they should go to him: after all, they were the property of his ancestor. However, he has today no constitutional role as a monarch, returning them to him is simply putting them in the collection of a wealthy private individual.
As it turns out, Frum’s concerns seem to have been well-placed, as the outgoing president of Nigeria Muhammadu Buhari announced in March that returned bronzes would now go to Oba Ewuare II. According to the Times of London, the bronzes returned from Berlin with much fanfare have now “vanished” into the collection of the Oba.
Notably, the British Museum has not returned their bronzes, with their website featuring a page on the topic, offering a very diplomatic and wordy version of “we think not,” but maintaining that they have a good relationship with Nigeria and remain in “dialogue.” Under the heading of “Where else can they be seen?” they helpfully promote (or throw under the bus, depending on one’s perspective) a list of other museums holding onto their bronzes.
There are other groups pushing back against restitution, including the Restitution Study Group, a nonprofit led by descendants of enslaved people, who do not agree with returning the works to Nigeria. They argue that the art was created for the Oba with profits from the slave trade, and his heirs should not “profit twice” by getting the works back.
One stumbling block for repatriation supporters is that UK legislation prevents the British Museum from deaccessioning its items. This also affects the Elgin Marbles, which have been the subject of calls for a return to Greece for decades. These are a collection of sculptures from ancient Athens, which were collected by Lord Elgin (a British emissary in Constantinople) in the early nineteenth century. He later sold them to the museum.
The first requests for the marbles’ return came with Greek independence in the 1830s, and periodically they were repeated—with more frequency in recent decades since the establishment of the new Acropolis museum designed to display the Elgin collection and other surviving sculptures in their original layout.
Countering those who think they should go to Greece, others have asked if those marbles would have even survived if they’d been left in Athens (plenty of other Greek classical sculptures were destroyed in wars or crushed over the centuries to make cement). Visitors to London can also appreciate them in a context of great works from ancient cultures of the world. The marbles have been in Britain for over two centuries now, and Elgin maintained they were purchased with permission from the ruling Ottoman Sultan.
This claim of ownership is another issue: if artefacts are seen to belong now to whatever government is in the area where they were created, wouldn’t the same have been true then? If they rightfully belonged to the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Greece at the time and gave permission to Lord Elgin’s agents to take them, on what grounds can they be asked to be “returned”? It’s an important question, given that some of the governments today that demand “return” of artefacts from foreign collections also sell and donate art from their nation’s heritage. Are these transactions contingent, potentially subject to future demands that buyers return the items?
Against this backdrop of moral debates on ownership, there has been an increasing focus on the presence of more recently stolen goods in major collections. Part of this push has come in New York, with the Antiquities Trafficking Unit attached to the District Attorney’s office. It is the only such unit in the world, and since its founding has facilitated the return of over $150 million worth of art.
In 2022, New York District Attorney Alvin Bragg announced the return of hundreds of stolen antiquities that had been seized in his jurisdiction. Some came from private collectors or dealers, but rather embarrassingly some had been on display in major museums, including the Marble Head of Athena, which dates to 200 BCE. It was looted from a temple in Italy, eventually arriving in the collection at the Met in 1996.
The Met also surrendered a White-Ground Kylix, or drinking cup, dating back to 470 BCE. The interior features a painted scene of a woman, standing before an altar and offering a dish. The museum purchased it in 1979. (The Met suffered a separate embarrassment in 2019 involving a stolen gold Egyptian coffin, which they had bought for $4 million only two years earlier, and which has been returned to Egypt.)
A major player in the arrival of some of these items in the US was hedge fund trader Michael Steinhardt. He apparently had an extensive network obtaining looted pieces of classical art from the Mediterranean. (Steinhardt has now been banned from trading in art and antiquities as a result of his participation in the trade of stolen works.)
The looting of art from Cambodia has been another focus across the art world, as their government demands the return of items that were either taken during the French colonial government or during the wartime chaos of the 1960s and ’70s.
Ongoing investigations have led to the return of various items, including from the Denver Art Museum three Khmer sandstone sculptures dating back to the seventh and twelfth centuries, respectively, and an Iron Age Dong Son bronze bell. But researching pieces that have been through several hands in decades is difficult. Vague descriptions on sales slips (“stone Buddha head”) and a lack of photographs, can make tracing provenance challenging.
Research continues into the trades of British-Thai businessman Douglas Latchford and Australian architect Douglas Snelling, both of whom had lucrative sidelines in the 1960s and ’70s bringing art out of Cambodia. They were respected in the museum and gallery worlds as collectors of Khmer art and caught the wave of fashion for Asian art. Works they sold are held in the collections of major museums around the world.
According to reports, they both dealt with a trader in Bangkok named Peng Seng, who acquired things from across the border in Cambodia and created false documentation to evade Thai laws banning the export of antiquities. (Snelling died in 1985, and Latchford was under indictment from the NY District Attorney at the time of his death in 2021.)
Like Steinhardt, these were wealthy men trading through intermediaries. Like Lord Elgin, they weren’t travelling to archaeological sites with a chisel themselves. The Peng Sengs of the art world have not disappeared. Despite international treaties, the black and gray market in antiquities has not stopped, and in some of the less stable and more corrupt parts of the world, the temptation to peddle local art to wealthy foreigners remains strong, as political crises and conflicts increase the trade.
What does all of this mean for the museum-goer? One effect of an attitudinal shift is shown in evolving exhibit labels and public discussion of institutional culpability in historic injustices. Gone is the confident tone of possessing the world, or global knowledge. In its place ambivalent (or even condemnatory) texts about museum founders and donors; access to artefacts is framed in terms of historical power dynamics.
Speculation about historic ownership of items clouds the focus on the quality of the works and their own intrinsic value. We hear more about the raid that stole the Benin bronzes than the skill of the artists who made them—let alone the victims of the slave trade that created them. Paradoxically, we’re still centering the discussion of African art on the actions of white people.
And perhaps it is easier to discuss Lord Elgin or other collectors centuries ago—and gesture widely at “colonialism”—than look closer at deals museums have made in the last few years, which suggest active engagement with looting in the present day.