In early May, The Netherlands announced the return of seven archaeological objects to the Iraqi ambassador.
Dutch authorities became aware of the objects when a collector offered them to an auction house. The collector, unaware of the looted nature of the objects, “is voluntarily giving up possession of the objects so that they can be returned to Iraq,” according to the governmental release.
In question are two figurines, a Mother Goddess and a ram that “was used as an amulet or seal;” a clay tablet with cuneiform writing and four foundation stones, similar to today’s cornerstones.
In April, the Associated Press reported: “Italian police say they have recovered a 1st century Roman statue that was stolen from an archaeological site in 2011 and found in a Belgian antiques shop by two off-duty Italian art squad police officers.”
That same month the BBC reported, “A Mayan urn, made between 900 and 1600 AD, is returning to Mexico after spending more than 50 years at a college in the United States.
“The urn, considered to be of high historical value, has been housed at Albion College, Michigan, since 1969.”
At the time of the agreement, Elizabeth Palmer, head of the Albion College Archives told The Albion Pleiad, “The actual definition [or repatriation] is to return someone or something to their own country.”
A donor who had made several trips to Mexico gave the urn to the college in 2003.
Also in April, the BBC reported: “Germany plans to return to Nigeria by next year some historical artifacts known as Benin Bronzes that were looted during the colonial era.
“‘We want to contribute to understanding and reconciliation with the descendants of those whose cultural treasures were stolen during colonization,’ Germany’s Culture Minister Monika Gruetters said.”
In mid-May, Reuters reported: “Amateur sleuths traced stolen Cortez papers to U.S. auctions. Mexico wants them back.”
Repatriation, understanding, reconciliation, rightful owners: there seems to be a trend here. That’s a lot of progress over about a six week period toward human decency and doing the right thing. Objects – and not ideas – are the true subjects of cultural appropriation.
And, right in the middle of it, the BBC reported again on the continued … continuing … almost obsessive … attempt by the University of Oklahoma to keep control of a Camille Pissarro painting, Shepherdess Bringing In Sheep, that the Nazis looted from a French bank during World War II.
BBC Correspondent Lucy Williamson writes, “No-one disputes this story. But the painting itself, found hanging in an Oklahoma art gallery in 2012, is now the subject of an unusual custody agreement, and a bitter transatlantic dispute over restitution rights in cases of stolen Nazi art.”
Opposed to OU is 81-year-old Léone-Noëlle Meyer, the stepdaughter of the couple who owned the painting before the Nazis stole it.
The legal filings involved in this case would choke a shark. There was an artwork-sharing agreement – maybe signed under duress. French courts have been asked to rule on the loss of a national heritage item and French law forbidding just such agreements in perpetuity. A U.S. district court, agreeing with OU’s lawyers, has found Mrs. Meyer in contempt and is fining her “$2,500 a day, in addition to legal fees – for as long as she continues the case in France,” according to Williamson.
And the Musee d’Orsay, where the painting now hangs, is reluctant to accept the painting as an occasional visitor because of the cost of shipping it securely back and forth across the ocean. [This results in yet another legal can of snakes.]
Williamson noted the U.S. court’s “stinging rebuke” of Mrs. Meyer, saying she “‘has largely forfeited whatever sympathy she might otherwise have been entitled to,’ having ‘entered into a rigorously negotiated settlement agreement … then violated that settlement agreement when it no longer suited her purposes.’”
I dunno, Mrs. Meyer still has my sympathy. The painting belonged to her family. It was stolen by Nazis. A collector donated the painting to OU – with a mistaken provenance that no one denies.
Williamson details the history of restoring artwork to the original owners following World War II, noting costly hurdles and short statutes of limitation that stopped many victims, plus museums’ reluctance to deal with the original owners.
“But attitudes are changing,” she writes. “France last month agreed to return a painting by Klimt from its national collection to the heirs of its original owner in Austria.”
Yet another example of people capable of doing the right thing, the honorable thing – instead of spending public money on lawyers’ fees to deprive an elderly woman of her property.
“We frankly do not understand,” Mrs. Meyer’s lawyer Eric Soffer said, “how Oklahoma could possibly justify to themselves and to their students the notion of getting an 81-year-old Holocaust survivor sanctioned in order not to yield a painting that they know belongs here.”
The painting is scheduled to begin its three-year rotation in Norman at the end of July. I guess we can say that remains to be seen.
Editor’s Note: Image of Camille Pissarro’s 19th century Shepherdess Bringing In Sheep is permitted to be published here because it is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.