Cultural treasures that are stolen goods


CULTURE SHOCK: Far too many objects of immense cultural importance are in the wrong places and should be returned to their rightful owners

THIS WEEK, Mahatma Gandhi’s glasses were sold at an auction in New York. Last week, two 18th century bronze heads – one of a rabbit, the other of a rat – were sold by the estate of Yves St Laurent at an auction in Paris. The sale of Gandhi’s glasses, and other personal effects, was denounced by one of his descendants as an insult to India. Cai Mingchao, the man who won the auction for the bronze heads – for $36 million (€28.6 million) – then revealed that he has no intention of paying.

He had placed the bid as a deliberate protest against what most Chinese people regard as the sale of looted property. The heads were stolen by the British and French forces who wrecked the Summer Palace in Beijing during the second Opium War in 1860. Li Xingfeng, one of the lawyers who had tried to stop the sale, compared it to “kidnappers demanding a ransom to give back your own child”.

In both cases, the auction houses were acting lawfully. The sellers had legal title to the properties, having bought them from previous owners. But the laws of France, the US or any other western country are too narrow a keyhole through which to view the larger questions raised by these sales. The fact is that western museums and private collections are full of cultural treasures that were, quite simply, stolen. Sooner or later, there has to be an acknowledgement that far too many objects of immense cultural importance are in the wrong places. Their title deeds are drawn in violence, domination and cultural genocide.

Let’s take one spectacular example, the astonishing Benin bronzes. This group of almost 1,000 sculptures – depicting the chief events in Benin’s history – is as wonderful, and as culturally important, as the Book of Kellsor Chartres Cathedral. Parts of the group are now among the most beautiful treasures of, amongst others, the British Museum, the Glasgow museums, the Museums of Ethnology in Berlin and Vienna, the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago.

They were stolen, pretty much as an afterthought, in a murderously outrageous “punitive expedition” mounted in 1897 by the British against the independent Kingdom of Benin (now part of Nigeria). It was conceived by a former Royal Irish Constabulary inspector, Ralph Moor, and was nothing more or less than an atrocity. In the course of the bloodletting, the royal palaces and compounds were set ablaze, destroying their elaborate wooden carvings. The bronzes survived and were flogged off by the British to defray the costs of the expedition, ending up in what we like think of as temples of western cultivation.

The Benin bronzes highlight the shifting and often hypocritical nature of the justifications for refusing to return such imperial loot to its rightful owners. It is argued that museums are not there to right historical wrongs, but in reality, everything depends on who has been wronged by whom. Art looted from Holocaust victims by the Nazis must, quite rightly, be returned – the Nazis, after all, were nasty. Art looted in the course of British or French atrocities (and the Beijing bronzes certainly come into this category) does not have to be returned because Britain and France are, after all, cultured societies.

Arguments about “safe keeping” are usually just as hypocritical. Who did the Benin bronzes need to be kept safe from – the people who created and revered them or the savages who stole them? How many hoots did the US and Britain give about the looting of the Baghdad museum? (“Stuff happens” was Donald Rumsfeld’s laconic response.) If museums really believe that they’re holding on to precious objects in order to preserve them, why won’t the British Museum return the Parthenon marbles to Greece? Do they really think the Greeks are going to use them for road surfacing?

Nor is it really true that the public collections of the West have somehow removed all these special objects from the vagaries of the marketplace. As the events of the last fortnight show, important objects are bought and sold all the time, and museums are a crucial part of this trade. For all the protestations about holding objects “in perpetuity”, the message given to African and Asian governments is that they get stuff back – at a price. In the case of the Benin bronzes, for example, the British museum actually flogged off 30 of the sculptures in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, both on the open market and to a proposed Nigerian national museum. The Chinese are essentially being told the same thing – if you want the Summer Palace bronzes, you can buy them.

The reality is that, in all of this, cultural treasures are like mediaeval relics. They are economic assets for tourism and prestige objects that enhance the status of the city that holds them. Policies change only when groups can exert moral pressure or use emotional blackmail. Holocaust victims had good moral cards to play in the West; African cultures don’t.

Australian aboriginals had enough romantic currency to be able to successfully demand the return of dead ancestors from British museums. Yet the honourable campaign being waged by Michael Brennan to allow the body of the 18th century Irish “giant” Charles Byrne to be buried according to his own wishes rather than displayed in the Hunterian Collection of the Royal College of Surgeons in London has been rebuffed.

Cai Mingchao, and his fellow Chinese activists, have done a great service in exposing these hypocrisies and double standards. They have exposed a very raw nerve – the persistence of an essentially racist divide in which “we” are so cultured that we deserve to have “their” cultural treasures more than “they” do. If we in the West want to prove we’re civilised, we can start by returning stolen goods.