A country’s right to their art cannot be denied

The issue of who owns a work of art is a complex one. Many questions surround it: Is art owned by the creator or the buyer? Does art belong to the origin place of its creation, or does it belong to the museums that have added it to their collections?

The modern world still grapples with the not-so-distant past of colonialism, during which countries, primarily Western European ones, looted their conquered territories’ arts and artifacts. Today, most repatriation cases (repatriation meaning the return of stolen artworks to their countries of origin) derive from colonial or imperial subjugation — as well as other forms of conquest and oppression.

As the 20th century progressed, a legal framework for the repatriation of cultural artifacts developed, with events like the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects calling for the return of illegally-acquired cultural property. Though repatriation claims are based on law, they, as Senta German, an associate professor at Montclair State University, wrote for Khan Academy, “more importantly represent a fervent desire to right a wrong — a kind of restorative justice.”

Repatriation is indeed a “restorative justice.” Art pieces taken from nations without their consent should be returned based on the facts that their repatriation reflects property laws, many of these objects carry cultural significance and their displacement is often rooted in unjust practices like colonialism.

Recently, as the debate over repatriation has come to the fore, museums and other collections have begun to return pieces. In 2023 alone, many returns have been made; the Royal B.C. Museum returned a totem pole to the Nuxalk Nation in British Columbia, and the Manhattan D.A.’s office returned objects like the Khmer Lintel to Cambodia. Locally, the Museum of Us in Balboa Park put out a notice of intent in 2022 to repatriate certain sacred and funerary objects to the appropriate Indian Tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations.

Such efforts are the correct step forward — even when solely based on the sheer principle of the issue. If a thief steals artwork, then it is both understood and enforced by the law that they should return said artwork. Similarly, if a country steals artwork, the country should return said artwork too.

Beyond that, looted art pieces can be politically, spiritually and culturally important to the people who made them, often representing and playing a role in national identity or heritage. For instance, the Benin Bronzes, a large group of metal plaques and sculptures, were plundered from the Kingdom of Benin (now Edo State, Nigeria) by British soldiers in 1897 and have since been spread throughout museums in Europe and America. The

Bronzes provide a remarkable account of the history of the Kingdom of Benin, including its dynasties and relationships with nearby societies. Nigerian citizens have long called for their return, regarding them as vital cultural artifacts and their displacement as a potent reminder of colonialism. Though there have been efforts to return some of them by American and European collections, Nigerians are still denied a considerable link to their past.

A large variety of objects also serve spiritual functions for their creators. When masks, statues, totem poles and other art pieces that are central to the culture of a people are taken away from them, they are stripped of something essential — their history, spirituality and lineage.

Furthermore, the displacement of artworks often originates from colonial exploitation or ideas of white supremacy. To keep stolen art perpetuates colonist ideologies of nonwhite inferiority and the extreme damage and suffering such ideas have caused. Many repatriation efforts have been made for the heirs of those who lost their art and possessions during the Holocaust — another example of how art is often stolen in a context of oppression.

On the contrary, there are some who say that showcasing other cultures’ art celebrates it by increasing access to it. However, this access only increases exposure for people from Europe and America. The people of the culture to which the art actually belongs may now have reduced access to seeing it in-person.

Others may argue that some of the countries of origin do not have the resources to preserve the pieces and adequately take care of them. While this is a valid concern, it is ultimately the nation’s right to own art pieces that belong to its heritage.

It is difficult to imagine that every piece of stolen art can be returned, and some have raised the point that if every object was returned to its country of origin, many museums would be empty.

Discomforting as that sounds, if a nation requests that an art piece be repatriated, it is unequivocally the ethical course of action to comply and return it.

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