A new restitution paradigm? - by Alexander Herman

One year ago this month, my book Restitution: The Return of Cultural Artefacts was launched as part of the Hot Topics in the Art World series. The event was run online (most things still were at the time) and chaired by Gareth Fletcher from Sotheby’s Institute of Art, with commentary on the book and on the topic generally from Sir Alan Moses, retired Lord Justice of Appeal for England and Wales, and Dr Henrietta Lidchi, then Chief Curator at the Dutch Museum of World Cultures. Much has happened since the launch and I wanted to use this opportunity to cover some of these changes, while adding my thoughts on what it all means. 

My book was divided into five chapters which covered the Parthenon Marbles, repatriation of ancestral material to indigenous groups, the status of war loot in museum collections, the restitution of art looted during the Nazi era, and the fight against the illicit trade in antiquities. There is a good deal to report in each of these areas.  

In relation to the Parthenon Marbles, while little seems to have changed outwardly – the prized pieces remain at the British Museum – the issue has jumped far up the political agenda with overtures from both sides that may lead towards some kind of settlement. Last November, Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis raised the issue with his (then) counterpart Boris Johnson in a high-profile encounter, trailing it provocatively on Good Morning Britain. The response from the UK side was – and continued to be – predictably dismissive, although the new British Museum Chair of Trustees George Osborne has now said in an interview that there is a ‘deal to be done’. My conclusion in the book was that there were too many structural disconnects between the two sides for any resolution to be likely, but I would be willing to suspend disbelief if the ex-businessman politician (Mitsotakis) and the business-minded ex-politician (Osborne) are able to hammer something out.  

When it comes to the repatriation of material to indigenous communities, as I reported in the book, there has been extensive activity in this space for the past 30 years. That said, much of it related to internal returns, that is, returns that did not have an international element. But we have recently seen these expand out more broadly: museums with great experience in repatriation to local communities are taking action in response to claims from overseas. The Smithsonian in Washington appears to be the leader in this: while long familiar with operating under the National Museum of the American Indian Act, the institution has made an impressive statement on ‘ethical returns’, following returns by the NMAI to First Nations in Canada and to Peru. 

As for the UK, while the British Museum always attracts attention for its persistent refusal to return collection items, much work has been done by other, non-national institutions. Since the book’s publication, two academic entities have returned Benin Bronzes to Nigeria (Jesus College, Cambridge and Aberdeen), with Oxford and Cambridge Universities now set to do the same. Meanwhile the Horniman Museum and Gardens in South London and Glasgow City Museum have already announced major Benin Bronze returns. Across England, museums now have helpful guidance in the area, with Arts Council England publishing Restitution and Repatriation: A practical guide for museums in England in August of this year. Likewise, there is much discussion surrounding the recent Charities Act 2022, provisions of which may soon have an impact on the ability of national museums to return items from their collections.  

As for art lost or stolen during the Nazi era, there have been developments in the Netherlands, which has overhauled the approach of its once-criticised Restitutions Committee, and where the long-disputed Kandinsky at the Stedelijk Museum (written about in Chapter 4 of my book) has in the end been returned to the claimants: a somewhat unexpected decision made by the City of Amsterdam without resort to the Restitutions Committee. In the US, technical matters in longstanding claims continue to be debated before the courts, with the Supreme Court weighing in most recently in Cassirer v Thyssen Bornemisza over a work by Pissarro. In fact, my book Restitution was cited in one of the amicus curiae briefs submitted to the US Supreme Court (filed by Mark Feldman through his attorney, art lawyer Nicholas O’Donnell). New York has also recently passed a law to make mandatory the display of labels next to pieces in museum collections that may have been looted. 

And lastly, when it comes to antiquities, Assistant DA Matthew Bogdanos (the colourful prosecutor who was once a US Marine) has been hard at work. I wrote about him in Chapter 5, indicating how a series of investigations he had been leading was underway. This has only accelerated, with dozens of artefacts having been returned to their countries of origin over the past year (see here for the most recent example) and with one particular investigation showing major ramifications in France and Germany, which include the indictment of the former director of the Louvre Museum. 

So what does it all mean? Well, first of all, my conclusions in the book about us entering a new ‘restitution paradigm’ are certainly proving true. Secondly, we continue to see the impact of the pandemic on much of the discourse (especially as a way of prompting a rethink of the way we see our cultural institutions). And lastly, there do not appear to be any signs of it letting up. Whether the Parthenon Marbles will be swept up in this sea change is anyone’s guess. It is likely, as I wrote in the book, that the restitution discussions have moved well beyond that particular dispute, meaning that it is in the process of being left behind. But whether a ‘deal’ remains to be made may depend on the new players involved in the drama. Only in the months ahead will we see if they are capable of radically altering a story that has persisted more or less unchanged for 200 years. 

– Alexander Herman, author of Restitution: The Return of Cultural Artefacts, is Director of the Institute of Art and Law, London 

Preview image: detail from 'Benin Bronze' plaque showing the king (Oba) in regalia and with symbols of royal power (c.16th–17th century). Relief plaque made of brass cast using the 'cire perdue' (lost wax) technique. © The Trustees of the British Museum.