Looted art: should we give it back?

Museums are actively checking their collections

Brass plaques from Benin, displayed in the British Museum.

Ethnic museums are checking their collections for looted art. But how should we return those objects? And to whom?

By Vincent Bongers, Anoushka Kloosterman and Sebastiaan van Loosbroek Pieter ter Keurs estimates that four to five per cent of all museum collections consists of looted art. While these percentages don’t worry the Departmental Head of Collections at the National Museum of Antiquities (RMO), he goes on to say: “We shouldn’t deny the fact that some pieces are indeed stolen goods. We should be upfront about it and share that information.”

The debate on looted art is in full swing. The term is no longer used exclusively for paintings stolen by the Nazis; nowadays, it mainly describes archaeological finds, human remains and artefacts from former colonies. Last week, Museum Volkenkunde and a number of other museums announced their new guidelines, promising that colonial art will be returned “unselfishly” to the country of origin.

Volkenkunde (Dutch for “ethnology”) was not available for comment. However, earlier on, its director, Stijn Schoonderwoerd, told NRC Handelsblad that the museum did not want to wait passively for claims, but would start actively looking for looted art among its own collection. “We know that part of our collection was acquired during the colonial era, a time of injustice and huge differences in power.”

“They’ve made it quite clear”, Evelien Campfens, from the Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies, says about the new guidelines. Campfens is doing her doctoral research on looted art. “The museums are saying: ‘We’re receptive to claims’, which is a good thing, of course, but they’re acting as if it’s some sort of world first, and it’s not. It’s always been possible to file a claim.” Ter Keurs agrees that the debate on looted art has been raging for quite a long time. “The Netherlands returned some items to Indonesia back in 1978, but you don’t read that anywhere.”

The only new thing about Volkenkunde’s guidelines is that they’ve actually been written down, according to Ter Keurs. “The main thing is, if there’s a claim, we should take it seriously. I think that most museums already follow these guidelines – we do. Except now they’re hoping they’ll be applied nation-wide, which would be a good thing.”
Nonetheless, things have certainly changed in recent years.

Campfens: “French President Macron shook things up in 2017, breaking a taboo by saying that he wanted to give back objects from former colonies in Africa. That decision to return artefacts from Dahomey, which is now part of the African state of Benin, in November 2018, was the first. The claim had been rejected two years before that, because it involved items from the French national art collection. Despite all the UN’s appeals, former colonial powers hardly responded to requests to return stolen art. That’s what was so ground-breaking about Macron’s announcement, and why some French museums are afraid of what will happen next.”

Ghanaian King Badu Bonsu II had to wait a long time for his funeral. He was hung by the Dutch occupying forces in 1838 for killing two Dutch envoys and dangling their heads on strings from his throne. After his execution, his own head was surgically removed and brought to the Netherlands. Preserved in formalin, it ended up in Leiden University Medical Centre’s Anatomical Museum, where writer Arthur Japin discovered it while doing research for a novel. It was returned to Ghana in 2009, at the request of the Ghanaian king.

“It was an unusual case”, says Campfens. “For me, as a legal professional, it was particularly interesting because Ronald Plasterk, the responsible Minister at the time, argued that the head could be given back to Ghana as it was not of exceptional cultural-historical importance to the Netherlands. That’s the actual criterion under Dutch law.”

“Embarrassing”, is how she describes that reasoning. “The criterion needs to be changed. Human remains in our museums that were collected during the colonial period are an urgent, red-flag category.”

Natural-history museums have human remains in their collections, too, such as a skullcap from one of our distant forefathers, homo erectus. It’s one of Naturalis’ showpieces and it was found in the former Dutch East Indies. Could Indonesia demand it back?

They might, Campfens says, but their success will depend on how it got here. “There are a number of categories with legal arguments for returning such items if someone wants them back. I’m talking about objects brought back as war booty and cultural objects that native tribes lost involuntarily, particularly if those objects have any ceremonial relevance. There are special rules for human remains. In Germany, for example, there’s an ongoing case involving a collection of skulls from colonial Africa; they were brought to Europe when people studied racial doctrine. It will take a lot of work to find out exactly where the skulls came from, but it must be done so they can be respectfully repatriated.”

“Anything’s possible, in theory”, according to John de Vos, when asked whether Indonesia might have a claim to that little piece of skull. De Vos, now retired, was the curator of the relevant Dubois collection at Naturalis for forty years. “At least, it was never mentioned”, he continues. “I had a counterpart in Indonesia and lots of contacts in high places at the institutions and universities, but it was never the subject of discussion.”

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Dutch paleontologist Eugène Dubois sent the skullcap and other archaeological finds to the Netherlands. It wasn’t looting, says De Vos. “He worked with the local population, that’s true, but so do we nowadays, if we go on a dig in the Philippines or on Flores.”

“I’ll be honest: it’s bloody hot there and I’m not strong enough to dig all day with a digging stick. The farmers in the neighbourhood are handy and we pay them a small fee. I suppose, in fifty years’ time, they might say: ‘they cheated me.’”

Other thorny topics are the bronze statues from Benin and the Maori heads in the Volkenkunde collection. New Zealand is demanding the return of the tatooed Maori skulls. Campfens: “Their government is going round the world asking people to give back the objects to their native population. For the Maori, it’s a sacrilege to display the skin of an ancestor in a museum.

In the late nineteenth century, the British plundered a palace in Benin – the kingdom in Nigeria, not the African nation. “It was full of bronze and ivory sculptures”, Campfens explains. “There’s almost nothing there now. A number of pieces are in Volkenkunde. The Nigerians have been asking for the statues for decades. A number of European museums are now negotiating their return and, last November, they promised Nigeria the objects on a permanent loan, but the Nigerians really want possession of them. I wonder if these new guidelines mean a rapid return of the bronze statues in Leiden. I think there’s a lot to be said for that.”

The RMO hardly ever get claims from nations, according to Ter Keurs. “What we have was collected in the early nineteenth century, when the rules were very different. Our early collections are beyond any doubt. They were collected under licence from the local authorities.”

And should a museum want to return anything, it could be difficult to decide who the lawful owner is, says Campfens. “Take the Benin bronzes. Do they belong to the state of Nigeria, or to the Benin people, as represented by their king, the Oba?”

National governments do not always have their tribes’ interests at heart. If a central government were to receive an important ceremonial object but is on strained terms with the tribe in question, you might wonder whether the object will find its way to the right people. “If we only take nations into account in such matter, we might undermine the rights of native peoples”, explains Campfens. “Their interests are not always guaranteed when an object is given back to a central governement, that’s why the UN declaration specifically acknowlegdes the rights of native peoples rather than the country in which they live. It would be a pity if the process were bogged down by this issue.”

The museums with the bronzes in their collections should also ask whether Nigeria is safe enough for such valuable objects and whether the quality of the museums is good enough. “Last November, the European museums promised Nigeria the objects on a permanent loan, but the Nigerians really want to take possession of them”, says Campfens.

Ter Keurs argues that giving back an object is not always a good idea. “International law states that national states could demand the objects. As soon as you return an object to a country it will become part of their national museum’s collection, etc. Often those items were not originally the property of the nation, but of a local sultan or local family, for example. If you return those objects, you’re making a political statement.

“If we pursue a policy of proactively returning such items, we’d actually behave like neo-colonials, because we’d be in charge of the process again. By the way, I’m not against returning things in principle, but we should think carefully about what we’re doing. We’ve been thinking in terms of national states since the nineteenth century, and our entire legal framework is based on that. The question is whether that goes far enough.”

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