How antiques are returned to their country of origin and why there is still a long way to go

A highlight of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to the United States was the return of over 150 works of art and antiques by US authorities that had been stolen in India. This follows Australia’s return in July of a pile of items that were illegally removed from India. The collections of museums and individuals across Western countries are strewn with pieces that have their origin in former colonies. While the need to restore works of art and antiques to their countries of origin is more than ever felt, thousands of these pieces still remain in the possession of Western collectors with no clear roadmap for their return.

Are there binding laws for the return of illegally acquired antiques?

Unesco notes that “the theft, looting and illicit trafficking of cultural property are a crime” because they “deprive people of their history and their culture. [and]… Durably weakens social cohesion “. Seeks to urge countries to crack down on” illicit trafficking in cultural goods “.

However, the emphasis of this 1970 Convention is on the prevention of illicit trafficking in cultural property, which is of little help when it comes to the issue of restitution in countries of origin of long lost objects that were removed during periods of colonial occupation. . India suffered both from the removal of artifacts by colonial powers and the theft and illegal trafficking of antiquities.

Concerning the “return or restitution of cultural property”, Unesco specifies that it “will be carried out in the spirit of the 1970 Convention”, which provides that bilateral negotiations must be the means of achieving such restoration. .

Recognizing the absence of international mechanisms for the restitution of “lost cultural property, whether as a result of foreign or colonial occupation or as a result of illicit traffic before the entry into force… of the 1970 Convention”, Unesco created in 1978 the Intergovernmental Committee for the Promotion of the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in the Event of Misappropriation (ICPRCP) as a permanent intergovernmental body, independent of the 1970 Convention. .

The key mandate of the ICPRCP is to facilitate bilateral talks for the return of cultural property, which means that it is up to the two countries concerned to reach an agreement to this end. And this is where things get complicated.

What are the obstacles to restitution?

While Western countries have talked about agreeing in principle with countries of the right of origin over antiques they illegally hold in their possession, the return of these items is a whole different matter. Reports say that when then British Prime Minister David Cameron was asked whether his country would return the Koh-i-noor diamond which is one of Britain’s crown jewels, he said that ‘he did not support such “returnism”. because that would empty the British museums.

A report by The Economist notes that countries like France and Britain have laws that prevent the alienation of items in public collections “making it impossible to remove even the smallest piece, whether for sale. or, more altruistic, to restore it. “.

However, countries like France, Italy, the Netherlands and Germany have contacted their former colonies and countries whose cultural heritage they possess to return some of these antiquities.

How does India track antiquities and continue their return?

In a response to a question in Parliament in March this year, the Union’s Culture Department said 35 antiques had been collected in the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom over the past five years. The ministry said that the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is responsible for pursuing the return of antiquities and is “in contact with various countries like the United States, Switzerland, Australia, Singapore, Canada, etc. has been corrected for the same “.

Writing for CNBC-TV18, former chairman of the Central Indirect Tax and Customs Council, Najib Shah, notes that a 2013 report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) revealed that ASI did not have “a directive comprehensive policy for the management of the antiques belonging to him; and significantly, as the custodian of the antiques, did not even maintain a centralized database of the total number of antiques in his possession. “

He says the key to tracing and returning Indian-owned objects held by foreign countries is the creation of a “solid database of antiques and existing and stolen objects”, while the authorities should continue to monitor the issue of restitution.

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