The art of restitution requires more than good intentions

Max Lunn

Image 1: Okukor, bronze, maker unknown, 17th-19th century

In November, Jesus College, Cambridge became the first British institution to give back one of the disputed Benin Bronzes to the Republic of Benin. The artwork (image 1), Okukor, is a bronze cock thought to have been looted during the ransacking of Benin City by British troops in 1897, folding the surrounding Kingdom into colonial Nigeria. The University of Aberdeen will also be returning a sculpture of a Benin Oba this month – showing that when one major cultural body offers moral leadership, others will be prompted to follow.

As Sonita Alleyne, the master of Jesus College, said at the ceremony “[W]e are proud to be the first institution to simply act, to just do it. This Benin bronze, this Okukor, does not belong to us.” Alleyne’s words neatly illustrate that, despite the momentum surrounding restitution, there is still widespread misunderstanding of the often-complex process. As Alleyne’s Nike-esque rhetoric makes clear, restitution is often presented as an attainable solution to an ethical issue: a binary “should we or shouldn’t we” question. This focuses solely on the ethical and political issues, with no regard for the legal context. Jesus College is an independent organisation, whose collection is not governed by national laws stipulating that nothing can leave the collection.

Alleyne suggested Jesus College was “the first institution to realise… the moral imperative.” No doubt this is true, but context is everything. Both Jesus College and Aberdeen University will have been looking nervously at Oriel College, Oxford, given the reputational dent left by the Rhodes Must Fall campaign. Fittingly, an independent commission established by Oriel College recently asked pupils whether the statue of colonialist Cecil Rhodes would discourage them from applying. Two-thirds said yes.

Image 2: Gold ewer, unknown maker, about 2500 – 2000 BC, Anatolia

Each week brings more restitution news: the Quai Branly museum in Paris has reaffirmed its commitment to return 26 Benin objects this week. The Gilbert Trust – housed in but separate to the V&A – has given back a 4,250-year-old golden ewer to Turkey (image 2); further afield in Amsterdam, the Court of Appeal has ordered the Allard Pierson Museum to return Crimean Treasures to the Ukrainian State.

Have the floodgates opened? This is one of the questions Alexander Herman, an expert in art and cultural heritage law, grapples with in his new book Restitution: The Return of Cultural Artefacts, due out in February.

Herman examines two aspects of restitution that are often glossed over in the maelstrom of moral furore and culture wars. The first is what’s really going on with restitution at a state level. The second is the legal limitations: few people now debate the ethics of restitution if it concerns looted cultural heritage but they do have to focus on the legalities. So the barrier to returning items is often a legal one.

President Macron was an early pioneer of the new paradigm of restitution. In his book, Alexander Herman discusses Macron’s unexpected speech in 2017 in Burkina Faso for the “temporary or permanent restitution” of African cultural heritage held in French institutions. This led to a commissioned report written by academics Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy, focusing on military spoils. Although the report went largely unimplemented, it reframed the debate and cemented the idea that restitution was a valid solution to righting historical wrongs.

Herman points out that the debate around restitution has “afforded certain governments a new way of establishing themselves through diplomatic links and geopolitical influence,” and that Macron’s words and actions, ostensibly about “doing the right thing” were in fact a way for France to assert its validity in Francophone Africa. This is noteworthy, but self-evident. The more intriguing example of a country using the restitution debate to further its international influence is China.

China’s “century of humiliation” (c.1839-1949) with the accompanying subjugation and looting – often by European armies – has meant restitution has often been on its agenda. Its approach, however, is markedly different to that of African nations: rather than protesting or seeking favourable outcomes through the courts, they wait for things to appear on the international art market. The objects, such as the bronze Zodiac Heads from the Old Summer Palace, are then purchased by “friends” of China, who subsequently donate them to the state. Both François Pinault and Stanley Ho are known to have done this.

Beyond recovering its own cultural property, China has endeavoured to assist less fortunate nations with their own struggles, seemingly as an aspect of the Belt and Road Initiative, but in practice with strategic motives. When visiting Greece in 2019, Xi Jinping expressed sympathy for the country’s claim on the Parthenon marbles: “[N]ot only will you have my support, [but] we should work together. Because we have a lot of our own relics abroad.” However, Herman points out that China needs to remain on the right side of Greece since the port of Piraeus, Athens, is Chinese-owned and vital for their European export market.

Image 3: The Museum of Black Civilisations in Dakar, Senegal

Similar motives can be ascribed to China’s direct sponsorship of art initiatives in other countries. The Museum of Black Civilisations in Dakar (image 3), Senegal, which opened to much acclaim in 2019 and cost €35 million, was paid for exclusively by the Chinese state. Herman points out that Senegal was the first West African country to become part of the Belt and Road Initiative in that same year, and it’s no coincidence the port of Dakar is another vital logistical hub for China.

Although restitution might seem a simple gesture, Herman shows it requires real pragmatism and collaboration in practice, and often a change in the laws of at least one nation. Take the 27 items promised by Macron to the Republic of Benin – owing to French laws concerning the inalienability of public collections, instances of restitution such as this are technically illegal. In December 2020, therefore, the French National Assembly passed a bespoke law to enable it to take place.

One problem with restitution becoming such a hot topic is that every disputed artefact is put into the same big box labelled “things to be returned”. This is unhelpful because it creates the impression that, if we agree to return one little bronze, the whole British Museum will end up being emptied overnight, and we’ll have to refill it with “British Art” or children’s drawings of NHS rainbows. This means the issue becomes unnecessarily politicised and, as France has demonstrated, real change can only happen with new laws. Without widespread public support it would be difficult for anything to be passed by parliament without stoking the blaze of the culture wars.

A better option would be to break down restitution into four distinct categories – to take it case by case and then to try and pass new laws; this could help prevent public misunderstanding and unnecessary politicisation of the issues. The first and by far the most urgent category is the ill-gotten gains of military spoliation (i.e the Benin Bronzes). It’s estimated 95% of Africa’s cultural heritage is currently housed outside the continent and it’s time for it all to go back.

The second category is the Nazi-looted artworks, of which 100,000 are apparently still due to be returned to their rightful owners. This is already complicated, because the vast majority didn’t end up in museums but have passed privately from owner to owner, who are often unaware of their shady provenance. However, admirable ongoing international work on this started with The Washington Conference of 1998.

The third, smaller, category is antiquities that have been illegally removed from heritage sites to be sold on the private market. Fortunately, global regulations and officious-minded individuals such as Matthew Bogdanos – an Assistant District Attorney of New York District Attorney’s Office, who is known to seize items publicly at art fairs – have put an end to this.

Finally, the most contentious category is where the legal title is genuinely disputed, and valid arguments exist on both sides. The Parthenon Marbles are a typical case within this limited group, but so famous they have muddied the issue by standing in the popular imagination for all restitution claims, everywhere.

The benefit of this four-category approach would be to avert general panic about a floodgate of claims. Once people understand there’s a formal procedure to be followed, case by case, calmer decisions will be possible. Then at last progress can be made.

Max Lunn is a journalist based in London

Arts & Culture

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