Museums and the Theft of Art: Who Owns Antiquity?

Are you a fan of Indiana Jones? If you are then you probably remember one of his catchphrases every time someone was looting a relic: “It belongs in a museum!”. Yes, Mr. Jones, we all agree that said relic should be in a museum… But not in YOUR museum.

Who owns antiquity? If recent and ancient history is to believed, the owners of antiquity are First-World Museums that exist merely because they have looted invaluable relics from developing countries in wars, contraband or simply using treaties and laws that were signed by corrupt officials who sold out their own heritage.

“But come on, without Museums, those relics in developing countries would have been lost to the sands of times and even destroyed!” Really? Let’s take a look at each particular case.

The Temple of Abu Simbel, Egypt

The Temple of Abu Simbel, Egypt

Finders keepers? It sure looks that way

The top Museums in Europe and the Americas are the result of Imperialism, plain and simple. Even the Royal Jewels of the British Crown contain diamonds of dubious origin. The most prominent of them being the Koh-i-Noor diamond, the largest diamond in the World. Said diamond originated in India before being lost to many different countries (such as Iran and Afghanistan) as a spoil of war.

It eventually landed back in India in the hands of the Sikhs before the British took it by force and now it rests in the Crown of the Queen Mother. When asked about it, Queen Elizabeth II said that since the diamond changed hands too many times, Great Britain has an equal claim to it. Yeah, right. Here’s what David Cameron had to say:

“The right answer is for the British Museum and other cultural institutions to do exactly what they do, which is to link up with other institutions around the world to make sure that the things which we have and look after so well are properly shared with people around the world. I certainly don’t believe in returnism, as it were. I don’t think that’s sensible.”

That’s a very interesting posture to take, specially since Great Britain was one of the main supporters of Germany returning the plundered art in the aftermath of World War II, speaking of which…

Statue of Greek general

Statue of Greek general

Museums and the Plunder of Art

Germany has a long story of archeologists who use sketchy laws and briberies in order to smuggle precious items out of developing countries. During my visit to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin I was totally shocked to see a COMPLETE Hellenistic temple (from modern-day Turkey), the Ishtar Gate of Babylon (from modern-day Iraq) and many other examples of big monuments that were shipped off to Germany.

However, when Germany tried to do the same during WWII and they began to steal art from other European countries, karma eventually got to them once the war was over. In the Russians, the Germans met their match.

Russia infamously looted Berlin at the end of WWII and now, it exhibits some of Germany’s looted relics at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts located at Moscow. If you ever visit it, please DO hire the audio-guide. Once you approach the exhibit of Priam’s Treasure (looted by the Germans from Troy, modern-day Turkey) , you shall hear a lengthy explanation of how many Russians died during the war and how this treasure is a compensation for the damage Germany has done to them. Funny how story goes, right?

But hey, shouldn’t said treasure be in the hands of Turkey instead of Germany and Russia? Funny that you ask…

The ruins of Pergamon

The ruins of Pergamon, Turkey

Modern Day Egyptians: Cultural Heirs or Conquerors?

Egypt presents a very particular and unique case when it comes to the debate of cultural heritage. The reason for that is because the modern-day population of said countrie have little cultural and ethnic ties to the ancient civilizations that once inhabited it, so their right to the relics found within their borders could be easily disputed by the true heirs of said heritage:

In the case of Egypt, the original descendents of the ancient Egyptians were displaced by the Greeks and the Arabs into the south and now inhabit the country known as Sudan. Today, the modern Egyptians are Arabs who conquered the land and the only reason why they care about the heritage left by the Ancient Egyptians is simple: profit.

Egyptian styled coffin

Egyptian styled coffin

The same also applies on many countries in the Middle East that have lost the ties to the civilizations that once inhabited their lands, Iraq and the ancient Kingdom of Babylon being another example of how the civilization and culture is now lost and the relics of said times are treated with no respect whatsoever.

Although of course, it is the descendants of the people who made said relics are the ones that have the total right to claim them back and foreign museums have no right to hoard them.

The extinct civilization of Babylon

The extinct civilization of Babylon

But…once all the art is returned, Museums will be empty!

No, not at all. Well, maybe the British Museum will be empty (after all, only 10% of the collection actually comes from Great Britain) but certainly not all museums. The main excuse used by Museums to refuse returning art and relics is that these pieces of cultural heritage should be accessible to all the world and museums in developing countries are not only inaccessible but also not up to date.

This was the main argument as to why the British Museum denied all claims made by Greece when it came to the Elgin Marbles (friezes of the Parthenon of Athens obtained via an illegal agreement with the Ottoman Empire that ruled Greece during the time).

Now, after the inauguration of the top-notch Acropolis Museum in Athens, the British Museum has no argument now and yet, they still refuse to give them back.

Friezes on a hellenistic coffin

Friezes on a hellenistic coffin

Look, I get it: London is one of the most visited cities in the world and yes, in theory, people will visit the British Museum and get educated in the different cultures that exist, which will in turn encourage them to see the real deal and probably visit Greece. But in practice, think about the other side of the equation:

Do you really think that a British boy has more right to see the Elgin Marbles than a Greek boy? By allowing the British boy to see this cultural heritage, you are taking away said privilege from the Greek boy. To make matters worse, how about relics from countries that are actually required to get a visa in order to visit the UK? How is that fair for them?

Yes, without the intervention of archeologists, looters and the Museums, there is a chance that these relics might have been lost for good. And that’s why I applaud the Museums as the protectors of antiquity.

But does that gives them the right to own it? No, I don’t think so. Do you?

Hellenistic despiction of Medusa

Hellenistic depiction of Medusa

37 Responses

  1. Lizzie Davey

    It’s difficult, isn’t it? Ownership is not easy to determine in most cases, particularly with objects that are thousands of years old and whose original owner’s descendants have dispersed around the world. And doesn’t the fact that, say, the Elgin Marbles are now in the British Museum tell us something about history? It’s all part of the story – but, like you say, is it right?

    I based my dissertation at uni loosely around this topic, and looked briefly at the Benin bronzes that now take pride of place in the British Museum. They were taken in violent circumstances, and Benin has begun an appeal to get them back. The British Museum is documenting this story in plaques on the wall next to the Benin bronzes, but is this really enough? I guess it comes down to who has more right, but how do you even measure that? Does a place that held the object thousands of years ago have more right over a country that “acquired” the object under whatever circumstances and safeguarded it for thousands more years?

    Thanks for discussing this topic – you’ve definitely got me thinking!

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      I think it all depends on the circumstances on which the objects were acquired. Even though Leonardo Da Vinci is Italian by origin, nobody is saying that the Mona Lisa should be removed from France, mainly because the artist himself gave it to King Francis as a gift.

      But for objects that were owned by an entire civilization and then taken by foreigners by force, such as the Benin Bronzes, then they clearly belong to the original owners and not to the new ones.

      • Lizzie Davey

        I absolutely agree. Take the Americans who stole potlatch objects from Native peoples and displayed them in exhibitions throughout the country. They had no right to do that… The items never were and never will be theirs. It has nothing to with their heritage. It’s the same with the Benin Bronzes.

    • Santa

      What on earth Lizzie Davey talking about here: “original owners”, “ownership is not easy to determine”, “descendants have dispersed” ?!
      Populations doesn’t simply “disperse” and, hence, disappears. How about “original owners” being buried by their sons and daughters or grandsons and granddaughters, and their heritage cherished by their descendants – and/or, in just handful of extreme cases, by those who settled as permanent population or raised to prominence and power later, like Turks, for example, who were around as largest population in a land ruled by political and religious entity known as Byzantine but didn’t participated in a building until they took over.
      But all that aside, “owners” of cultures, languages and religions, or, in a word, Identity, simply don’t exist !
      However, we can codify ownership on land and, in a sense, on entire countries through laws and political systems (in extreme terms with military might): so, who “owns” soil of United Kingdom, or of France or Spain, especially Spain, hence, who owns Stonehenge, or who owns Palmyra (UNESCO heritage site), or even better exercise for thought: who owns Alhambra, or who owns Krak in Syria, Al-Kerak in Jordan, and many other such palaces and castles and its treasures, all of them inscribed as important UNESCO heritage !?
      Or just imagine someone, sometime ago, came and took entire Stonehenge and installed it on some square in Baghdad or Ryad or Cairo, with explanation that Brits were too weak, too careless and disinterested to tend and safeguard this monument, which, by the way, isn’t British after all because it “belonged” to a people which have no connection to an entity we know only since the beginning of the Middle ages ?
      “Ownership” is easy to determine: it belong to a people inhabiting the land !

  2. codowd

    Fantastic post. Seeing the Pergamon Altar in the middle downtown Berlin really made me look at museums in a different way; it just looked so cold and clinical next to the white museum walls. Though I still dislike the fact that the British Museum refuses to return so many of their ‘stolen’ pieces, it is almost history in itself, in that it is a relic from a time when the British did rule so many corners of the world with so little regard for the ancient cultures there. Thanks again.

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      You’re welcome and yes, I totally agree. In fact, I’m surprised to learn that there hasn’t been any protests inside of the British Museum yet. I guess not everyone knows (or cares) about the injustice in the acquisition of said relics :(

  3. karendwarren

    Interesting article. On balance I tend to be against the return of art works to their ‘original’ owners, partly because it is incredibly difficult to establish who the original owner is (leading to all sorts of arguments) and partly because, once you start returning art works you open the floodgates, potentially changing the museum world for ever (you might query whether that is a bad thing, but it is certainly a consideration). Then there is the question of curatorship and protecting artefacts for future generations.

    The question of who has the ‘right’ to see things is an interesting one. Taking your example of the Elgin Marbles, the current situation means that an English boy has more access than a Greek one, BUT the Greek boy has access to many more ancient Greek artefacts that have not been removed from Greece. And London gets far more foreign visitors than Athens, allowing people from all around the world to see a slice of Greek history. Returning everything to Greece from all the museums around the world would limit Greek history to those who actually visit Greece. Would that be a good thing?

    Having said all of that, I do think that there are limited situations (for instance, thefts of artworks from people who are still alive, or from the parents of people who are still alive) where restitution should be made. It is all a very complicated situation, and one where the arguments will run and run. Thanks for the article.

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      The main issue here is that the Greeks are not demanding the British Museum to return ALL of the looted art that is currently at their west wing. They only care about the Elgin Marbles because of their enormous cultural and historical value to the history of Greece as a whole. That’s also why the British Museum is so keen on keeping them.

      In other related example: For many decades now, the inhabitants of Easter Island have demanded the return of the stolen Moai statue that is the only link to the two main eras of their history (The statue making era and the Birdman competition era), they are even willing to trade one of the thousands of existing and well-preserved Moais in return for the one that means the most to them as a culture. The answer of the British Museum? “No, thanks”.

      It’s clearly obvious that the British Museum doesn’t care about enriching the culture of the visitors, they care about retaining their most precious prizes from their time as an Empire.

  4. The Crowded Planet

    Agree with you on all points Raphael. I have visited Pergamon and the local guide kept mentioning the fact that their altar is in Berlin. Then I saw the altar in Berlin and it seemed really out of place. Same goes with the Parthenon Friezes in the British Museum. I couldn’t believe the excuses they came up with. Thanks for sharing, it’s really good to build awareness on this topic.

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      I can imagine the confusion of the visitors of the real Pergamon “So you tell me that this huge temple is actually inside a museum in Berlin?”. That being said, there are some special cases, such as the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, where the Museum is the only way to ensure that the relic is preserved because otherwise it would have been long destroyed in the many wars of Iraq.

  5. Manouk - Bunch of Backpackers

    Hi Raphael, difficult topic you’ve got here! You can write multiple theses about this ;)! I also visited the altar in Berlin and it was all a bit odd. In a perfect world there would be some mutual giving and taking. So, if Greece want their (emphasize on their !) stuff back, Britain should prob give this back. However, it’d be great if Greece would say that they could ‘lend’ pieces for education back in Britain.

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      I agree about museum loans, that’s basically what Mexico does to promote our cultural heritage: We lend some (emphasis on some) of our relics to different museums throughout the world but we always keep the most important ones in a permanent exhibition at Mexico City.

      I believe that the only important relic that we haven’t recovered yet is the crown of Moctezuma that now resides in Vienna, Austria. There has been talks of trading it for the Royal Carriage of Emperor Maximilian that we have in Mexico City but nothing has been materialized yet.

  6. Linda Bibb

    I’m with you on all of it. Cairo asked Munich to return the famous Nefertiti’s bust and they refused. Likewise London refused to return the Cleopatra’s Needle that now overlooks the Thames. Someone was heard to say, “But they wouldn’t know how to take care of it.”


    The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a complete Egyptian temple, but in their case they bought it from Egypt. It was one of the many structures doomed to be lost below the surface of Lake Nasser when they built the Aswan Dam.

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      I think that Egyptian Obelisk have had the worse fate when it comes to stolen relics, they’re basically spread out in Rome, Paris and London.

      It’s sad to know that the majority of the visitors to the Place de la Concorde in Paris ignore that the Luxor Obelisk actually comes from Luxor, Egypt instead of the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas!

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      Thanks for sharing the video, Paul! Recently, George Clooney also made a statement about why the British Museum should return the stolen art, it was quite popular since it also nicely tied to his movie “Monument Men”.

      PS. Stephen Fry is the best! :D

  7. emilyluxton

    Such an interesting post and something I never really thought about before! It’s a difficult point, thought – on the one hand it seems only right that cultural relics be returned to the country they came from, on the other I’ve seen plenty of museums here in South America that really don’t seem to be taking care of their artefacts which may lend to the argument that certain precious items might be safer in bigger, better funded museums. Very interesting argument :)

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      That’s an extremely valid point! If a country doesn’t seem to be interested in investing money in order to protect his own relics then it has no right to claim them back since they will not take proper care of them.

      Thanks for bringing it up, Emily!

  8. JR

    This is a thought-provoking post, indeed, and one that presents quite a conundrum. History is filled with cases in which one country took what did not belong to it. How to we resolve all this in modern times without risking losing access to and preservation of such unique items that tell the story of cultures? I was in British Museum last month without giving though to the origin of the pieces and their journey to the spot at which I could gaze at them under glass or on a pedestal. I will go to Turkey next month — now with something to think about as I view historical arts and relics. Thanks for that.

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      I recommend you to visit the Istanbul Archaeology Museum and also the one inside of the Topkapi Palace to see some very interesting relics.

      One of them is a very impressive tomb made for Alexander the Great (that he never used), you’ll love it.

  9. Samantha @mytanfeet

    Hmm very interesting article with some good points. I guess we all sort of have the thinking that all artifacts or piece belongs in a museum but we overlook the museum’s rights and how that piece actually got there.

  10. Jules and Christine (@DontForget2Move)

    Once again another great, thought-provoking article. The whole museum industry is so dodgy, especially with the British. This makes me think of the ongoing battle by some Indigenous Australian groups trying to get ancestor remains released from British museums and sent back to Australia to finally lay them to rest. You’d think it was a pretty reasonable request, unfortunately not!

  11. Nancie

    An interesting issue, and not one that is likely to be solved anytime soon. Can you imagine the Brits dismantling the Queen’s crown to return a diamond? :)

  12. inpursuitofadventureblog

    This is a really difficult issue to tackle and there is not an easy answer. If we start agreeing that antiquities should be returned to their home countries where does it stop? Are we talking about just modern acquisitions during imperialism or should we take it all back? There is a long history of conquerers taking what didn’t belong to them home. Take Rome and Emperor Augustus for instance, should Italy return all the obelisk that belong to Egypt because Emperor Augustus took them all in the first century? I don’t believe the Italians would agree, especially for the one in front of the Vatican….

    Studying archaeology definitely made me realize that there will never be an easy or correct answer for this. The main thing should be that the antiquities are taken care of and preserved and shared with the world. And at least the British Museum is not burning paintings like the Nazis did

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      I agree that it is a very thin line to cross, specially since modern First-World Nations were built by stealing and conquering land and relics from others. As you said, “Where does it stop?”.

      Should the descendents of the Native Americans reclaim their land from the modern day US Citizens? It is a very touchy issue and in the end, I believe this problem will only be solved in the same way that it originated: By the law of the stronger one.

  13. americanmominbordeaux

    Wow – Fascinating article. I, like others, have never really thought about who truly has the ownership of “orginal” works. You are right – since much has been stolen conquered over time – who does it really belong too. It’s really a tough debate as who owns it. Art/Relics do serve to demonstrate history – but often it’s a mix of history – or demonstrating how certain lands belongs to certain other countries over time…I do believe in museums as a way to publicly display and show first hand relics from the past – but again – “Who does it truly belong to?” Thanks for writing this piece – happy to have found your link.

  14. Jon @

    Nice article Raphael, you don’t often see things like this in travel blogs! I guess there is no right or wrong answer to this, but I do agree that things of particular significance to a country should be on display in that country. Maybe they could have a sports style draft system where every country gets to choose 2 things that they really want back.

  15. Christina

    I really like the part where you are talking about karma. I had to laugh a lot because it is really true. If you steal (and that´s what it is) from other countries you have to be prepared your artifacts will be stolen too…

    Great article.

  16. Chris Boothman

    I often find visiting museums interesting even though sometimes they are a little on the boring side! Had a great experience at the Louvre in Paris over Christmas 2013 but apart from that and a few in England I can’t say that I am too much of an expert.

    But to answer your question of ownership – well that really is a million dollar question! Is it the museum, is it the local government or an external entity? Who knows!! I know I certainly don’t and I’m sure it’s a bit of a touchy subject among many antiquity experts.

  17. Dave Cole

    Very thoughtful piece. The existence of foreign artifacts in a museum is something that most travelers take for granted without considering the origin. I will definitely have this on my mind the next time I’m at a museum.

  18. The Gallivantista

    Really interesting stuff.
    I was drawn to read this having only last week seen the Elgin Marbles for the first time. I fully agree that they should be given back to Greece and placed back where they belong.
    Late last year the United States returned some dubiously acquired Inca artefacts back to Peru, which I was pleased to see.

  19. annyjay

    Let me start by saying this is going to sound horribly arrogant. Given that ancient Syrian ruins are being destroyed by ISIS and other religious militants; the Acropolis is being destroyed by pollution, and, having been to the Egyptian Museum, some items in that museum have basically turned to dust because they weren’t properly displayed. Shouldn’t we view these as treasures of the world, rather than of just that country? Now I’m not saying everything should be stored in first world museums, but is it up to us to ensure the world’s treasures remain for future generations.

  20. topcat88

    when greeks roman persians arabs ottomans french invaded Egypt, they didnt come to displace the original population of Egyptians, what kind of logic is that? they where invaded simply to rule not diplace, egypt has always had a huge populations of farmers from the delta to the nile valley with millions and millions living, not nomads that can be pushed down south. so what you say is pure ignorant garbage, original descendants of ancient egyptians are Egyptians living there today. its not up to you or me its up to continuous history, coptic language (was used till 500 years ago & genetic studies and real unbiased historians. you shouldnt tell such lies.
    these monuments you see today in western world stolen from ancient countries, is nothing but proof of the nature of western theft, sooner or later they will be returned to their heirs. egypt is 9000 years old, we will outlast you.

  21. George

    A Greek archaelogist said it best: “We shouldn’t demand all of our artifacts to be returned to us after all they (the artifacts) are the embassadors of our culture to the world. The Parthenon marbles (Elgin marbles) though is a different matter. They have been broken off a still standing monument thus leaving it half. The Parthenon deserves to be complete once again…”

  22. Santa

    This article, although written beautifully with probably honest intent, is stained with couple of stark fallacies and bullshits. These fallacies begins to appear when author starts to write about Egypt and Middle East, and Arabs.
    Why author takes considerably different approach when write about plundered Greek or Indian sub-continent heritage versus that of Egyptian and Iraqi is interesting, and although only he knows why it’s not that much baffling – to me it’s more important that Egyptian or Iraqi kid has same right on his heritage as that Greek kid, for whom author warm heartedly advocate in his article, all the while he seems to take subtle but completely inverse position on Egyptian or Iraqi kids.
    What is going on here ?!
    To say that somehow Greeks and Arabs “displaced” ancient Egyptians and Babylonians, in what is now Egypt and Iraq, is like saying that contemporary Greeks are no more descendants of ancient Greeks then white Australians or South Africans are Aborigines and Zulu – after all, how many of these Greeks existed if they were able to “displace” entire Egypt population in Egypt (?!); or how many Arabs existed if they were able to “displace” not just Egyptian and Iraqi but every population from Jordanian platou and Euphrates-Tigris delta up to Anatolia on the north and Morocco and Spain in the west – or, it’s like saying that today’s Cuscoans, because they speak Spanish and prey to Jesus, are descendants of Spaniards who somehow displaced Incas !?
    My point is simple and factual: contemporary Iraqis are mostly descendants of ancient people living along Euphrates and Tigris, and most Egyptians of today are descendants of ancient Egyptians – languages changed, religions changed, culture in broader sense changed, but the population stayed and, while they were accepting new languages and new religions of new rulers, even preserved many customs and traditions throughout the ages and amidst of all those changes !
    To claim that today Egyptians perceive their ancient heritage only as a mean of profit, while they don’t identify with it or even don’t care at all about it, is nothing short of racist claptrap promoted and repeated infinitely by colonial orientalist ideologues and propagandists, who ultimately plunder it.