The friezes of the Parthenon, a jewel of the British Museum, refreshed embers about the restitution of works of art in 1984, when Greece asked them back. As a result of the decolonization process, restitutions issued up becoming fashionable thanks to the outstanding personality of Zahi Hawass, archaeologist in charge of Egyptian antiquities for a decade. He requested a few works of art among the most emblematic in our world class museums’ departments of Egyptology to be sent back to Egypt.
The result will finally be more symbolic than effective. Revolutions in the Arabic world took place and made Zahi Hawass lost any political existence for the moment.
Many countries are requesting the return of their historical and artistic heritage, currently part of western collections. African and Oceanic belongings, the objects of the Aztec, Mayan and the Incas civilizations, the objects of the Babylonian, Sumerian and Mesopotamian archeological sites, the plunders consecutive to Ogaden Wars, etc., will all these works of art return one day to their “owners”? What does the law say on this subject? The 1907 Hague Convention forbids the plundering in wartime. In 1954, the Unesco Convention came to settle the fate of cultural property plundered in wartime. The additional protocol to this Convention imposes the restitution of cultural properties which would have illicitly been exported. In 1970, the Unesco Convention extends the prohibition to looting in peacetime. But these conventions are not retroactive and they only apply to States, not to private individuals.
The attempt to sanction individual persons was introduced by the Unidroit agreement in 1995. This text opens the possibility to force the return of illicitly acquired items and, in whatever hands they are, over a period of 50 years; but indeed few countries have ratified this agreement and the ‘bigger museum countries’ are not part of it. The law is not the only instrument to the service of restitutions. A code of ethics for museums, aiming in particular at strengthening the procedures of acquisition, was set up by Icom (International Council of Museums).
Lack of regulatory framework is also taken in consideration by the UNESCO. For example, the diplomacy allowed, on December 14th, 2009, the return of 5 frescoes from France to Egypt, on January 19th, 2010, the return of 139 pre-Colombian archaeological objects from Spain to Nicaragua, also on March 3rd, 2010, the return of 25.000 antiques from Great Britain to Egypt. But Great Britain refuses nevertheless to return the Parthenon’s métopes to Greece.
Pressure for the return of items in their home countries is becoming stronger. Because we are, in fact, at a particular moment of the world’s history. For the first time, the living people will, within a generation, outnumber all those that ever lived on earth: 7 billion today, 9 billion by 2050. Mankind is rushing towards a stressful future in a semiological fog. Yet, works of art are the very symbols that give meaning to the world. Some countries, improperly called emerging such as China, are rediscovering their historical roots. By considering their history, they try to re-establish their identity and to understand where they are going to.
From the symbolic point of view, the works are like messengers between people. And beyond, the idea of intercession, so dear to Picasso, when he spoke of the African art. The circulation of works of art always followed the global trends of the world, be it weapons or money. Beyond even these legal convolutions, the return reflects a will of justice and of respect for the peoples. But, is this the only possible answer? Wouldn’t it mean attaching little importance to the wonderful progress represented by the creation of Museums in particular the “Universal Museums”, the heirs of the Enlightments? It is in that period that objects migrate from royal collections and cabinets of curiosities to museums. It starts with the British Museum created in 1753, then the Louvre in 1793 and the MET in 1852. The invention by the Unesco of the concept of world heritage has been a considerable step forward.
The property right, the old cornerstone of the Enlightements, often seems obsolete today. There still remains to imagine solutions without deconstructing necessarily collections. It is thus necessary to rethink the legal framework and to define criteria, according to which, objects should be restored in the “home country” or should be housed in a “Universal Museum “. An international governance of the major museums, the touring of collections or sharing the knowledge at world level, are the possible new ways.