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Life and Arts

Who Owns Stolen Treasure?

Countries fight over colonial-era antiquities

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  • Countries from Asia, Africa, and South America continue to demand stolen antiquities be returned.

  • Antiquities are "relics or monuments (such as coins, statues, or buildings) of ancient times." [Merriam-Webster]

  • Throughout the Imperial and Colonial Eras, European conquerors brought back thousands of antiquities from Asia, Africa, and South America. [The Washington Post]



screen shot 2018 10 17 at 4 36 37 pmABC News

3,400-year-old bust of Queen Nefertiti originated in Egypt and resides in the Neues Museum in Berlin, Germany. This bust draws more than 1 million viewers every year.

screen shot 2018 10 17 at 4 28 30 pmThe Telegraph

Elgin Marbles, ancient Greek statues. The items were removed from Athens by the British in the early 19th century. It has remained a prized possession of the British Museum since 1816.

  • Raiding, looting, taking or stealing treasures and antiquities was common and often displayed upon arrival in Europe to flaunt a victory or to show the life other people live in foreign or areas. [The Washington Post]

  • International conventions written in 1954 prohibited wartime looting, theft, and resale of artifacts. [The Telegraph]
  • Some estimate that almost 10 million antiquities have disappeared from China since 1840. [ArtNews]
  • The Indian government continues to demand that the British return famous 105.6-carat Kohinoor diamond taken in the 1840s. [The New York Times] The diamond is currently set in the Queen Mother of England's crown and is estimated to be worth between $10 to $12.7 billion.  [Smithsonian]
  • Since the 1960s, Nigeria has been demanding the return of 4,000 ivory and bronze artifacts that the British army looted in 1897. [Vox], [The Art Newspaper]
screen shot 2018 10 17 at 4 33 00 pmThe Huffington Post

The Koh-i-Noor Diamond is one of the largest cut diamonds in the world, weighing 105.6 carats (21.12 g), and part of the British Crown Jewels. The diamond was originally owned by the Kakatiya dynasty in South India.



SOCIAL: Countries that had their antiquities stolen want to claim back their historical dignity.


Many believe the West (Europe and the United States) have largely ignored the negative impact they had on former colonial possessions, and this fight is a small example of such. [The Washington Post




Some believe that the countries of origin do not have the infrastructure to maintain the antiquities and artifacts. They believe that the items should remain in museums that can properly take care of them. [The New York Times]



More exposure 

Some believe that these items gain a larger audience when presented in European or American museums than where they originated. [The New York Times]



On tour

Almost all museums allow the country of origin to have the items on loan for a specified time, sometimes as a "permanent" loan. [Vox]




Loaning may be the only option. Some cities like London have legislation that bans museums from permanently selling or "discarding" items in their collections. [Reuters]


Country of origin

Many believe that African, Asian and South American heritage should not be in private European or American museums since it did not originate there. [The New York Times]


"... they stole them. Those items are the works of our forefathers and they are very unique to us,” Nigerian sculptors, Eric Ogbemudia. [Reuters]


Some believe it is not historically accurate or appropriate for former conquerors to have ownership over something stolen. [BBC]



Colonialism 2.0

Many argue that Western museums claiming only they can safeguard antiquities are another form of colonization, this time over culture. [The Guardian]


The argument of who can best maintain these historic items has been contested as far back as the nineteenth century. [The Atlantic]




Some of these items have deep spiritual and cultural meanings. Many argue the items should be in close proximity to those believers.


A museum in Berlin recently agreed with that reasoning and returned nine items to a Native American tribe in Alaska. [The New York Times]


  • In the U.S., there are laws to protect Native American artifacts. There are no such laws in Europe. [Smithsonian]

  • President of France, Emmanuel Macron, has vowed to return African antiquities back to their rightful countries. [The New York Times]

  • August 2019: Germany and the Netherlands announced plans to return stole African artifacts. [NPR]

  • There has been a rise in changes to traditional museum tours to explain the entire story of how each antiquity or treasure was acquired. [Aljazeera]

  • Loaning or borrowing antiquities has become a popular compromise between countries. [Reuters]


  • Dive deep into the psychology of present-day looting.

  • What do you think is the best way to deal with this problem?

  • Will this improve relations between the West and their former colonies?

  • Learn more about African art by Art News.

  • Learn more about how many around the world worry about America's cultural imperialism here.

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