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The Return of Cultural Treasures

The Return of Cultural Treasures

By Jeanette Greenfield. Pp. xxii + 500, b&w pls. 139. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2007. $125. ISBN 978-0-521-80216-1 (cloth).

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This is the third edition of the classic, well-researched volume The Return of Cultural Treasures by Greenfield, an expert in international law and cultural property. First published in 1989, this highly readable compilation of intriguing cases and legal analysis documents the development of the principle of the return of cultural property in international law. What began as a study of classical and European cases in art and literature has grown in later editions to incorporate cases on Russia, east Asia, the Middle East, Nazi-plundered art, repatriation to indigenous populations, and even paleontological concerns. Each succeeding edition includes new chapters on emerging themes as well as updates for ongoing cases.

In her descriptions of each case, Greenfield combines primary evidence with well-argued reasoning to discern whether grounds exist for a legal right of return, or an ethical or moral obligation to do so. The term “return” is typically favored over “restitution” because of the political implications; the former signifies a gift whose ownership was never in question, whereas the latter infers the existence of a prior right of ownership that needs correcting. The volume covers most of the high-profile cases as well as many lesser-known ones, and thus a wide spectrum of arguments used for and against return is represented. This book also underscores how vitally significant the act—or even the idea—of return can be to the identity of a nation or of a cultural group.

Chapter 1 delves into Iceland’s request for early manuscripts from Denmark, an example of return based on moral rather than legal grounds. Greenfield has followed the status of this case in each edition of the book, now to its resolution. This case highlights the symbolic significance of acts of return—here in the context of Iceland’s request for independence from Denmark and in terms of how others perceive Iceland’s global intellectual contributions.

In chapter 2, the author takes a fascinating look at circumstances surrounding Lord Elgin’s removal of the Parthenon marbles in the early 1800s, an act that, we learn, has always been controversial. Especially illuminating are early arguments about whether works of art should retain ties to their places of origin, ideas that are still viewed as setting a dangerous precedent by some western nations and museums.

Chapter 3 examines patterns of exploration, collecting, and colonization that removed so many cultural treasures to European institutions. The legal bases and justifications for retention—or, in a few cases, for return—of cultural objects in England, the United States, and Canada are the subjects of chapter 4. Using Egypt’s request for the Rosetta Stone as one example, Greenfield scrutinizes the British Museum’s retentionist policies and rationales against return. Although the museum has considered making “gifts” and “renewable loans,” its reluctance to establish a precedent of return persists, with the recent exception of new policies for human remains (see ch. 12). In chapter 5 Greenfield looks at the implications of recent cultural property legislation, focusing on the United States and Canada. She updates her analysis of precedent-setting cases in cultural property law (such as McClain) with a nuanced summary of the case in which antiquities dealer Frederick Schultz was indicted for violating the export laws of another country, which marks a sea change since the first edition appeared in 1989.

The story of Russia’s remarkable “amber room” in chapter 6 exposes readers to a very different political and historical context for taking and return. Russia’s approach has always focused on regaining Russian cultural property either through repurchase or exchange, as illustrated in cases of Fabergé eggs, religious icons, and works of impressionist art taken from Germany during World War II as compensation for damage caused by Nazi occupation. Chapter 7 recounts the covert campaign of the Vatican to eradicate Hebrew literature, which amounted to nothing less than cultural genocide. This shocking story illustrates how history can be recast to justify and legitimate even the most egregious forms of taking or appropriation as legitimate collecting.

The next chapter, which focuses on several high-profile cases in international and regional regulation, would seem better placed earlier in the volume. By the early 1970s, UNESCO’s concept of restitution of cultural property rested on two issues—the removal of cultural property from newly independent states and the illicit art trade. According to Greenfield, UNESCO’s efforts developing protocols and conventions have had little actual effect other than illustrating how contentious these issues can be within and among nations. In the author’s opinion, among the major art importers, the United States has been the nation most willing to respond to requests for return.

Chapter 9 examines art theft and the trade in illicit art, underscoring connections between stolen art and war or civil unrest, and noting a wide variety of cases. There is a sense that the author is trying to cover too much here, sacrificing depth for breadth. The illegal trade in cultural property from China is one topic discussed in greater depth, including China’s attempts to recover some of these objects by repurchasing them at greatly inflated prices. The next chapter covers the looting of Baghdad’s National Museum as well as recent takings of cultural property in Afghanistan, China, Korea, and more updates on the Elgin marbles and Nazi-stolen art. In Baghdad, individuals who had concealed objects for safekeeping returned hundreds of them to the museum; other objects were traced through coordinated international efforts of museums and customs agents. In both chapters, Greenfield seeks to compare the outcomes of using voluntary or nongovernmental forms of return with the use of approaches mandated by law.

Chapter 11 moves beyond nationalist concerns to consider calls for repatriation by aboriginal peoples and the importance of return to cultural identity. Greenfield concludes that the positive relationships that repatriation has fostered between indigenous peoples and museums far outweigh retentionist desires, especially in light of past injustices. She also notes the willingness of First Peoples to share their cultural treasures once they have greater equity in their control. Although many other cases are briefly mentioned, she focuses on two of the most contentious cases ever to occur—Kennewick Man and a complex situation in Hawaii involving the Bishop Museum. Yet there were enough small inaccuracies presented here (the one area I know a little about) that it calls into question the soundness of her facts or, more likely, the quality of editing. For example, Greenfield’s overly concise description of the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (320) is so fractional (one phrase lifted from the act itself) that it is incorrect as it reads; her recounting of the Kennewick Man case states that the U.S. Army impounded the human remains, whereas it was the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (a very different kind of agency), and the tribal groups who claimed the remains were from northwestern America—not northeastern.

“Ground Zero” is an apt title for chapter 12, an unsettling account of instances of deliberate and selective destruction of cultural property with examples ranging from the Bamiyan buddhas and Nazi treatment of “degenerate art” to China’s focus on the eradication of cultural ideas and beliefs. In her final chapter, Greenfield revisits the legal foundations of concepts of “return,” “country of origin,” “cultural property,” and others that she finds tend to be overused. She notes the many changes since the 1990s in social attitudes toward return and the need for provenance; she revisits how effective (or not) international conventions have been.

Greenfield insists that the legal and ethical issues underlying every claim of ownership should be carefully scrutinized and decided on their own merits, and this is precisely what she demonstrates to her readers. She concludes that decisions about return should be based on the context-specific nature of each case, recognizing that approaches that work in one situation may not work in others. Her analysis highlights the importance of historical details for understanding the roots of deep-seated and often emotionally charged attitudes for and against return. Unfortunately, many of the chapters added in this third edition try to cover too much, and they end up glossing over cases and positions in a cursory manner compared with the depth and nuance found in earlier parts of the book.

How does Greenfield address the prevalent argument that cultural property belongs to “all of humanity”? She finds this universalizing concept has been misused to justify the taking not only of objects but also of lands and cultural practices, often with the effect of marginalizing the voices of those who may well have a valid claim to cultural properties. Ultimately, she (like UNESCO) does not consider that restitution and return are in opposition to the concept that heritage belongs to all humankind, but that they actually work to strengthen this idea by promoting international cooperation and respect for cultural values. She concludes that return works best when it takes the form of voluntary, mutually agreed upon decisions rather than when compliance is forced through laws or courts.

Much more than “a law book with pictures,” this volume is a must read, and in many ways a reference book, for anyone interested in international cultural property issues, whether from the perspective of law, ethics, politics, or art and museum studies. Moreover, it is an excellent resource for undergraduate or graduate students, both for learning about cases, legal concepts and ethics, and as a point of departure for further research on any of the hundreds of cases mentioned in the text.

The volume ends on a positive note with a long list of successful returns and some innovative ideas for sharing objects through rotating exhibitions, long-term loans, or digital information sharing. Greenfield sees the role that digital technology can play in making materials accessible to both scholars and communities of concern as an argument for retention of objects in museums, particularly for photographs and manuscripts; nevertheless, she still advocates the return of objects of cultural significance to source communities. Further evaluation of digital approaches and the many intellectual property concerns they are likely to engender will need to await the next edition. After all, England and Switzerland have just ratified the UNESCO Convention, Africa deserves at least a chapter, and museums everywhere will continue to face challenging requests for the return of cultural property.

Julie Hollowell
Department of Sociology and Anthropology and the Prindle Institute for Ethics
DePauw University
Greencastle, Indiana 46135

Book Review of The Return of Cultural Treasures, by Jeanette Greenfield

Reviewed by Julie Hollowell

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 113, No. 1 (January 2009)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1131.Hollowell

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