During the last days trying to follow the news about the now-cancelled sale of the Benin Ivory Pendant Mask currently in the ownership of the Galway family, I have stumbled across some useful blogs and write-ups for understanding some of the wider (legal) issues concerned. Among them, there are a number of blogs chronicling and commenting upon developments related to art, antiquities and the law beyond Nigeria and Africa (if anybody is aware of a blog particularly concerned with African cases pls. let me know. Although, of course, you may also want to keep an eye out for Ogbechie’s African Cultural Patrimony Campaign.).

Art Theft Central

Cultural Heritage in Danger

Culture in Peril

Illicit Cultural Property

Museum Security Network

The Art Law Blog

The Cultural Property and Archaeology Law Blog

These are in addition to Elginism and Looting Matters that I already mentioned before.

With particular regard to the artefacts removed from the Palace of the Oba in Benin in 1897 you may in particular want to read Dr. Kwame Opoku’s writings at Museum Security Network and in Modern Ghana (see this one on the previously named James Cuno or his direct response to Alan Behr’s review of Cuno’s book). It may be worth googling for his most recent contributions as Opoku appears to be one of the most outspoken supporters of the return of the Benin Bronzes but also other artefacts that have arrived in museum and private collections under controversial circumstances.

With regard to the legal situation, Derek Fincham provides a useful discussion (for the lay people among us) of the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention at the Illicit Cultural Property blog as well as in this paper. Elginism provides further links to the relevant UN resolutions. Meanwhile, Jonathan Fine suggested that those interested in the legal context may read the Altmann case in which the US supreme court ruled that ‘Austria did not enjoy immunity from suit under the doctrine of sovereign immunity for its expropriation of various paintings that were in the Belvedere Gallery museum in Vienna.’ He suggests it illustrates the efforts of the Altman family to ‘keep their claims to the art in question alive.’

On a completely different note, I read with particular interest Nicholas Merkelson’s blog post on ‘subsistence looting’ at Culture in Peril from earlier this year. He rightly observes that it is one thing for archaeologists and anthropologists with their regular incomes and government grants to assert the importance of official and systematic excavations and documentations. It is a completely different case from the point of view of the usually impoverished and marginalised populations from among which ‘looters’ emerge:

The reality is that subsistence digging is most often carried out by refugees from civil violence and victims of economic despair. In developing countries especially, subsistence digging becomes a viable socioeconomic alternative to starvation for the rural poor. Their livelihoods sadly are hampered by land speculation and abuse (by corrupt political and military regimes), extra-local commerce, and a distinct lack of any political voice. The few dollars subsistence diggers receive from the sale of an artifact could easily buy their families such necessities as food, clothing, medicine, and security (not to mention is several times more than archaeologists are willing to pay them as day laborers on their sites).

Additionally, many indigenous groups—in Latin America and elsewhere—see themselves as the legitimate heirs to archaeological and cultural artifacts pulled from their land. They view these treasures as gifts from their ancestors, deposited in the ground by real or mythological patrons, to be harvested by later generations. The Belizean huecheros call their finds “semilla,” or seeds—planted by their ancestors to dig up and sell for money or for actual corn seed. These finds also provide subsistence diggers with a veritable link to the past, a link that is otherwise entirely ignored during archaeological excavation. In a way, archaeologists will treat the past with reverence but treat the descendants of that past like ignorant peasants, as if locals are better off not knowing their connection to the objects being pulled from the ground.

As I said in an earlier post, I haven’t yet quite got my head around debates about restitution of cultural property and/or looting. So, none of the above claims to be representative of the wider debates (though I got the impression that Opoku is an important contributors to these debates who anybody interested needs to read – including me) or by any means comprehensive. … Anyway, I leave it there for now and try to get back to the things that are closer to my own area of research …


  1. Another website that may be of interest. It presents case studies of Heritage Restitution:

  2. Hi Katrin,

    Many thanks for mentioning Culture in Peril in your post! I'm happy to see my older posts are still relevant and being read. Where do you stand on 'subsistence digging'-- with the archaeologists or the local community? Personally, I'd like to see greater collaboration extending beyond just the excavation pits, such as greater employment and education initiatives. Local communities whose ancestors created these artifacts can be a valuable resource for educating archaeologists about the modern cultural significance of the artifacts.

    Definitely subscribe to Culture in Peril for new updates and posts. I'm glad to have you as a follower and part of my audience.

    Happy New Year and all the best,

    Nicholas Merkelson
    Culture in Peril
    Twitter: @cultureinperil

  3. Hi Nicholas,

    I definitely follow.

    I’m pretty new to wider questions regarding the preservation of cultural heritage as well as issues of cultural patrimony. I’m primarily interested in contemporary arts. What kinds of arts (in the widest sense) are being produced today? Who are the people who produce them? Who are people who buy them? And, how do artists and patrons relate to art works/artefacts within wider contemporary contexts of ideas and practices.

    To be honest, before I stumbled across your post I hadn’t seriously thought about the issue of “illegal excavations” from that perspective. It makes a lot of sense though – and, in fact, is not that far removed from similar arguments I have made elsewhere (right now not sure whether it actually remained in the final draft of the thesis or got lost in the editing process) with regards to vandalism and, not sure it’s a useful term, iconoclasm. In either case, I am torn between acknowledging the rights of local communities to manage (and, whether we like it or not, this may involve wilful acts of destruction, negligence resulting in decay or sale to outsiders) “their” cultural heritage [1] and an instinct for preservation, preferably locally, and close study. In either case, I do feel I need to read wider, consider more arguments.

    But, as for your question: Instinctively, the community.

    From my rather comfortable position as a PhD student at an English university I am in no position to judge those in developing countries who, as a means of survival or even social advancement, excavate or trade artefacts of “their” past. Also, let’s be honest, how much of the knowledge derived from “professionally” excavating and studying those artefacts is actually made available to local communities or, often enough, even academics in these countries? My feelings are more ambiguous where the sale or destruction of artefacts serves to primarily (further) enrich opportunistic social and political elites or to sustain exclusive/essentialist cultural or nationalist ideologies.

    Anyway, not sure this is a satisfying answer. As I said, I feel I need to read wider – and I’m extremely grateful for your post because it is pointing me into another direction of inquiry and thinking about these issues.

    P.S. Did I just really write an answer in the comment section that includes footnotes? I urgently need to get a life again …

    [1] Although, of course, these communities may well be split into fractions as to who legitimately owns the past as well as to how to deal with the artefacts of “their” past and present.

  4. You may also wish to visit Aficavenir and Arikanet

  5. Dr. Opoku extensively commented on the now cancelled Sotheby's sale on MyWeku [].

    In this regard, the link to the provided in his bibliography doesn't work any more. However, I found the document here:

    I provided the link to the UK's special Holocaust (Stolen Art) Restitution Bill elsewhere but here it is again:

    Compare that to the British Museum's Policy on the De-Accession of Registered Items from the Collection [] and the 1963 British Museum Act []

    On that note a 2002 BBC article suggests that since the 1950s the British Museum has sold off more than 30 Benin Bronzes, most of them to Nigeria. []

    Being German I'm a bit embarrassed that I'm so struggling to find similar documents about the 'mission' and acquisition/de-accession policies of in particular the Ethnological Museum in Berlin (another large collection of Benin Bronzes).

    Finally, here is an interesting collection of articles about restitution put together by UNESCO in 1985 []and a UNESCO site providing several documents reg. restitution of cultural artefacts []

  6. Found the Mission Statement of the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation)which oversees the Ethnological Museum in Berlin. Sorry, its in German only and I don't have time to translate but if you copy that into Google Translate you can easily get an approximate translation. []

  7. You might be interested in


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