Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Repatriation - A New Idea from China

Repatriation of antiquities has been in the news again with the aggressive posture of Egypt's Zahi Hawass, director of Egypt's Council of Antiquities in Cairo. Recently, Zahi Hawass has requested that US Customs return a Pharonic era coffin that allegedly was illicitly removed from Egypt in 1884 or some 125 years ago. Hawass has stated that he will not be encumbered by UNESCO's magic date of 1970. It is disturbing for all collectors and museums that the New York Times has reported that US Customs has been trying to get the private US owner to give up the coffin. Certainly anyone knowledgeable in these issues understands that politics and intimidation are big parts of these disputes. Here is a list of the priority items Hawass wants back: 1. Rosetta stone - British Museum 2.
elegant bust of Queen Nefertiti - Berlin's Neues Museum 3. the Dendera Temple Zodiac -Louvre, Paris 4.Bust of the pyramid builder Ankhaf -Boston's Museum of Art.

Egypt and Greece have certainly been among the most vocal in the international community. However, now China is flexing its muscles in a brand new way. The Wall Street Journal reports;"
Chan Jixiang, head of the State Cultural Artifacts Bureau, said this week that the government is considering offering payment to get some of its stolen art back, Xinhua reports (in Chinese). While China will not concede any of its original claims of rightful ownership, Chan said that China may be willing to provide “fair and reasonable” compensation to the “benevolent holders” of its looted artifacts, in accordance with international treaties and conventions. Further details on the proposed program were not available.

To date, China has refused to pay for looted art treasures, although some wealthy patriotic citizens and overseas Chinese occasionally make a big show of buying stolen works at auction and returning them to the motherland. " Certainly a good part of this is based on nationalism, a concept that is certainly not new. It is new that China plans to send a team of experts around the world to visit museums and identify objects for repatriation. Now that China has become the creditor to the west the leverage may be increased significantly. One wonders whether this might also create security concerns where literally China puts a price on objects they consider part of their patrimony. What happens to international lending for art shows? If China is successful in repatriating objects by this means, will Greece, Egypt and others follow? This certainly will be interesting.

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