What about ancient rip-offs?
It seems that throughout history, various colonial powers have taken
ancient artifacts from their original locations. This article
discusses the resolution of one such event: http://news.yahoo.com/two-bronze-animal-heads-stolen-153-years-ago-152353756.html
While many countries have been involved in this practice, it seems
that France, Great Britain, and the United States have been
particularly active in the trade.
Dr. Zahi Hawass (former Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs
for Egypt) has been very active in securing the return of many items
to Egypt. While there is no small amount of controversy over the
ego, ethics, and practices of Hawass, no one can deny that his work
has led to repatriation of artifacts taken from Egypt by past
The actions taken by Hawass have encouraged other countries to press
for the return of antiquities now "owned" by outside holders. Added
to this is long-standing and still building effort by many Native
American groups to secure the return of artifacts and lands taken
from them by the American government.
I have mixed emotions about this...
I believe that ancient artifacts belong to their location of origin,
but I am concerned about the preservation of these objects. The
historical significance of antiquities can't be overlooked or
understated, and so preserving them for the future is of utmost
To illustrate this, let me present a totally fictitious and,
perhaps, absurd example...
Let's assume that in 1800, a full headdress was taken from a small
tribe of Native Americans. Since that time, the artifact has resided
in a museum someplace where professionals have preserved it in
excellent condition. The tribe, as it exists today, is very small,
maybe a few hundred members, and is quite poor. They are so poor, in
fact, that they simply could not afford to preserve the headdress.
Now, is it in anyone's best interest to return the item to the tribe
when the odds are that the headdress will be neglected (not
intentionally, mind you...just a matter of economics)? Or, is it
better to leave it in the care of the museum where it will continue
to be cared for?
I think we need to consider this when it comes to ancient artifacts.
In the above somewhat wacky example, I think the best thing is to
return title (or whatever you want to call it) to the headdress to
the tribe, but the item is to remain on permanent, non-revocable
loan to the museum.
The major problem is just who decides what gets returned and what
doesn't. Do we really want to leave such important decisions to
national governments, politicians, or the circus that is the United
Nations? Personally, I think not.
What say you?