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.).
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.’ http://supreme.justia.com/us/
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 …