Repatriation, the Dark Side of the Arts



While it is important to have a deep appreciation for the arts, it is also imperative to understand the overbearing problems that hundreds of museums are facing today. When we walk into a museum, you are not simply walking into a building with paintings and historical archives. Instead, you are entering a vast world where various concepts, ideologies, and cultures have shaped the overall foundation of our history. Hundreds, if not thousands, of these priceless historical artifacts, while prominently showcased in many of these popular museums, have been stolen, traded, and sold through numerous hands before making its way to these museums’ footsteps. Because of this, the concept of repatriation has become a popular discussion amongst art historians and experts alike.


Repatriation, by definition, is the return of art or cultural heritage that usually refers to ancient artifacts and art that was looted from countries and former owners during a time of war. The concept of looting has always been associated with the philosophy and act of war. You may have heard the common phrase, “To the victors goes the spoils.” In addition to bragging rights, the victors would usually go beyond the subject of conflict and take their claim to what they deem theirs. Because of this, thousands of historical artifacts have been either pillaged from their homes or destroyed as a whole. As much as times have changed, our course of history has highlighted various instances where this problem continues to persist today.


But what continues to exasperate this problem is the question of ownership. The question of ownership and the process of identifying and returning stolen artifacts to their original countries is an extremely taxing, and somewhat convoluted process. In the grand scheme of things, ‘finder’s keepers,’ while not a rule, has still leveraged its fingers on some of the worlds most priceless treasures and cultural heritage artifacts to remain in some of the most highly acclaimed museums. Without the overall permission of said-country or owner, this type of steal is a great loss for that nation. For that single piece of art, it represents more and a popular exhibit. Instead, it encompasses an entire culture and history of a specific group of people.


One of the darker times for the United States was the looting at Baghdad’s Iraq Museum. During that time, the United States troops were engaged in toppling the Saddam Hussein regime. It was estimated that about 15,000 items of antiquities ranging from ritual vessels to Assyrian ivories was stole during the time of war. Even just last week, the United States had handed back more than 200 ancient artifacts valued at more than $100 million dollars that were stolen from religious sites in India and smuggled out of the country. These artifacts included religious statues and bronze and terracotta pieces that were dated back to more than 2,000 years ago.


While the United States are definitely not the only country who have experienced this problem, it does raise awareness to the general public about the ever-growing problem and dark side of the arts. Only time and politics will tell whether or not these cultural artifacts will find their place at their original homes.