Restitution begins at home: an insider's analysis of the issue of restitution

The return of objects is not just an international issue—domestic claims can also offer insights.

Christie’s owner François-Henri Pinault’s recent and very public decision to return to China two bronze heads, of a rat and a rabbit, that had been looted from the Summer Palace in 1860, with the statement “the family… strongly believes they belong in their rightful home”—like the concurrent controversies over Turkish and Cambodian antiquities—raises questions that all holders of contested objects need to consider carefully.

His decision of course reflects the importance of the Chinese market to a luxury goods group like Kering (formerly known as PPR, of which Pinault is chief executive), as well as the significance of this issue for Franco-Chinese relations at the state-to-state level, but it also raises ethical questions that museums should no longer duck or avoid. If they do, they will lose the power of initiative in an area of vital importance to their future. Attitudes towards illegal excavation and export, the trade in looted objects and the duty of museums to take an active part in the rectification of past wrongs have changed hugely during the period since I first started work, in the British Museum in 1974. The number of claims has risen, responses to these claims have changed and the intensity of feeling around them has grown too, feeling often unhelpfully mixed up with national identity and international rivalry. But issues of return and restitution are not always or necessarily international, some are domestic, and it can be useful to think of these, as well as international problems, to see how claims have emerged and practice has evolved in circumstances less freighted with emotion.

1. The stone of scone

On St Andrews Day 1996, a rectangular block of sandstone, “The Stone of Destiny”, was formally installed in Edinburgh Castle. This act of restitution was intended symbolically (and in reality) to undo the actions of Edward I of England, the “Hammer of the Scots”, who, 700 years earlier, in 1296, had instructed that the coronation stone of the Kings of Scots should be taken from Scone Abbey to London. There it was placed under the King of England’s coronation chair in Westminster Abbey: symbolically asserting England’s claim to sovereignty over Scotland.

The Scots were not alone in believing that objects had power. For many cultures across the globe, objects can acquire sacred or symbolic power, which makes them much more significant than their often unimpressive physical appearance might suggest. It is the symbolic significance of possession and relinquishment, their association with perceptions of power and status, that makes the restitution and return of these types of artefacts so difficult and emotionally charged. The return of the Stone of Destiny in 1996 was initiated by the then desperately unpopular Conservative Secretary of State for Scotland, Michael Forsyth (now Baron Forsyth of Drumlean). He no doubt hoped that its return would persuade Scottish voters that their nationhood would remain intact under Conservative administration, without the need to devolve powers from Westminster to the proposed Scottish Parliament. It was not a success: the Conservatives lost all their Scottish seats in the following elections and the Scottish Parliament was duly inaugurated in 1999. Surprisingly few questions about this act of restitution were raised at the time, even though the Irish and the English have as good a claim to the stone as the Scots. It is often argued that disputed objects should be returned to their place of origin: this is one of the bases of current Italian, Greek, Turkish and Egyptian claims for the return of antiquities. Yet the “origin” of the authentic Stone of Destiny is, according to legend, not Edinburgh or Scone but Tara in Ireland, the home of the High Kings of Ireland. It is also often claimed that it is the length of association with a particular place that is important. The Scots came to Scotland from Ireland in the sixth century, so the Stone of Destiny could hardly have been in Scotland for more than the seven hundred years it resided in Westminster.

To complicate matters further, the stone’s authenticity is, in fact, questionable. Alex Salmond (the First Minister of Scotland and the leader of the Scottish National Party, which campaigns for complete separation from the United Kingdom) is one of many who have doubted it. In an article in The Daily Telegraph on 3 April 2012, he said: “If you’re the abbot of Scone and the strongest and most ruthless king in Christendom is charging toward you in 1296 to steal Scotland’s most sacred object and probably put you and half of your cohorts to death, do you do nothing and wait until he arrives or do you hide yourself and the stone…?” It also seems unlikely that the stone comes from Ireland: geologists have identified it as originating in the vicinity of Scone in Scotland. Nor does it look like the seat on which John Balliol was crowned King of Scotland in 1292. Walter de Hemingford, who attended, Balliol’s coronation, described this as “hollowed and made in the form of a round chair”. Perhaps the Abbot of Scone gave Edward’s men something else ­altogether and hid the authentic chair. But if so, why was the authentic stone not used for the coronation of Robert the Bruce at Scone in 1306? And why did the Scots want it back badly enough to make its return one of their ­objectives in negotiating the Treaty of Edinburgh/ Northampton in 1327-8 (Edward III issued a royal writ requiring its return, but it was never executed)?

In 1950, four Scottish nationalists stole the stone from Westminster Abbey. It was broken in the process and Alex Salmond is not alone in suggesting that the stone returned in 1951 could have been one of the copies made by Bertie Gray, the Glasgow stonemason to whom the stone was taken for repair. But would Scots therefore regard an English claim for the permanent return of the Stone to Westminster with indifference? Almost certainly not: at least until a more convincing and better preserved version turns up. It begins to be apparent, I hope, that the discussion of restitution within the UK raises many of the key issues around restitution elsewhere, in a context that, precisely because it is domestic to the UK and therefore somewhat less fraught than restitution claims involving dispute between states, helps us to understand that these issues are universal.

2. The Dunkeld lectern

There are many other examples of restitution debates within the UK. In May 1999, the leading Scottish Nationalist Winnie Ewing was quoted in the Glasgow Herald: “Not only have we seen the return of the Stone of Destiny to Scotland, but another part of our history is returning”. She was referring to the Dunkeld Lectern (below) which, according to the Herald, “was made in Italy in 1498 and was gifted to Scotland by Pope Alexander VI” to George Crichton when he became Bishop of Dunkeld in 1526. William Galloway, a Scottish antiquarian writing in 1879, suggested that the lectern, which bears George Crichton’s name and arms, and that had been found in St Stephen’s Church in the English town St Albans when the Montagu family tomb was opened in 1748, might have been given to the church by Sir Richard Lee. It is known that Lee looted a brass font from Holyrood Abbey during a punitive expedition launched against the Scots by Henry VIII, which he gave to the Abbey Church (now cathedral) in St Albans and that was melted down during the English Civil War, so Galloway suggested that the lectern might also have been looted and demanded its return to Scotland.

The lectern’s loan to the exhibition “Angels, Nobles and Unicorns” in 1982 aroused strong nationalist feelings in Scotland and it was stolen from St Stephen’s church in 1984. Happily it reappeared, after extended negotiations between the Church of England and the Church of Scotland, during my time as the director of the National Museums of Scotland in the 1990s and eventually went on display in the Museum of Scotland as an icon of Scottish history. But again, on the basis of the accepted story, the lectern originated not in Scotland but in Italy and has been associated with St Stephen’s Church, St Albans for more than 400 years (from roughly 1544 to 1984): much longer than with Dunkeld (less than 20 years). To add confusion, a census of eagle lecterns of this type demonstrates that they are overwhelmingly found in churches in East Anglia and central England and it seems probable that they were made in England or the Low Countries. So it must be the historic wrong, Sir Richard Lee’s putative pillage, that motivated the Church and others to work for, or accept, its return to Scotland, rather than anything particularly Scottish about the object.

3. The great bed of Ware

The Great Bed of Ware (above) was made around 1590 to attract custom to the White Hart Inn in Ware. Subsequently it was sold to the owner of Rye House, Hoddesdon in 1870, before being bought by the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in 1931. Some argue that it “belongs” in Ware, although there is nothing obviously contestable about the chain of ownership. Its return to the town between April 2012 and April this year has been generally welcomed, though even with the publicity generated only around 25,000 people saw it during its year there, perhaps a tenth as many as would have seen it in the V&A over the same period. The experiment has dampened the sometimes excessive expectations about the consequences of a “return”, while at the same time reinforcing understanding that there can be multiple legitimate interests or stakeholders in a historically resonant object, particularly when that object is in a public collection and therefore in some sense owned by “the people” as well as by a particular institution.

4. The Lindisfarne Gospels

The Lindisfarne Gospels (right), made by Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne (699-721), has been in the British Museum/British Library since its foundation in 1753, given by the heirs of Sir Robert Cotton, who acquired it in the early 17th century, after its removal from Durham under Henry VIII in the 1530s. Its return to the North East of England has been vigorously campaigned for, supported by the former Bishop of Durham, now the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. He was quoted in the Northern Echo: “Something that comes from here should be part of the life of the region”. It remains to be seen to what extent the loan of the Lindisfarne Gospels to Durham this year has ­satisfied local opinion.

5. The lewis chessmen

The Lewis chess pieces bring us back to Scotland, but in this case the issues surrounding them are as much intra- as international. These walrus ivory and whale tooth items, made in the late 12th century, were found in a chest in the dunes at Uig on Lewis in 1831. Eighty-two are now in the British Museum and 11 in the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh. When I was director of the National Museums of Scotland in the 1990s there were strongly stated demands for their return to Lewis, but whether to Stornoway or Uig was a matter of debate. There seemed to be a real risk that the pieces could be “kidnapped” if returned to Lewis, but regular loans to the Museum of the Western Isles from the British Museum and the National Museums of Scotland created a reasonably harmonious partnership, which then extended to other exchanges. In 2007-8, there was a new campaign for their return.

Linda Fabiani, then the Scottish minister for Europe, external affairs and culture, declared that it was “unacceptable that only 11 Lewis chessmen rest at the National Museum of Scotland while the other 82 remain in the British Museum in London”, thus appearing to suggest that “return” should be to Edinburgh rather than Lewis. Margaret Hodge, then the minister for the arts in Westminster, responded: “It’s a lot of nonsense isn’t it?” while Bonnie Greer, the writer and critic, who was also the deputy chairman of the British Museum, “absolutely” believes that they should stay in London. A renewed loan to an exhibition that toured Scotland from 2009 to 2011 seemed to restore a degree of harmony. No claim to the chess pieces has yet been lodged by Norway, although the balance of scholarly opinion is that they were probably made in Trondheim.

6. Lessons learned

What can be learnt from the five British examples cited here? First that there is a strong tendency for well-known objects associated with a place to be claimed for that place. Sometimes the claim is that a historic wrong should be put right: Henry VIII’s despoliation of the monasteries or English looting of a Scottish abbey. Sometimes there is a sense that objects are significant to the culture, history or society of the place, region or nation in question. Their absence leaves something important incomplete: repossession will restore the community’s identity and make it whole. There are economic arguments too: tourism would be generated and the local economy boosted by possession of the contested objects. In no case is the argument for “return” (and I put return in inverted commas because this is the term most widely used even though strictly four out of five cases do not involve return to the putative place of origin) based on what would generally be regarded as a coherent set of agreed principles. And yet in every case the argument is deeply felt, often widely supported and, in terms of public reception and results, quite effective. Indeed, if we look solely at the effects of the restitution claims cited here, it could be argued that they are on balance positive. The Lewis chess pieces are much better known, have been more thoroughly ­studied and seen by many more ­people than would have been the case if they had remained uncontroversial.

The same is true of the Lindisfarne Gospels, which, though on display in the British Museum for many years when I worked there, attracted very little public attention. The return of the Stone of Destiny meant a lot to many Scots, but there has been no comparable sense of loss in England. Valuable partnerships have been created around several of these objects, partnerships that would not have come into being without the stimulus of controversy. Although there are unattractive, dog-in-the-mangerish aspects to all these claims, the overall outcome has, so far, been beneficial for all concerned.

So, might restitution claims be a good thing, to be encouraged rather than feared? The climate of opinion has changed significantly over the past 50 years. When I first worked in the British Museum in the 1970s, it was regular practice to take in and study coin hoards that had been illegally excavated and exported. The argument was that there would be a significant loss to our knowledge of the past if these hoards went unrecorded. This was true but when it became obvious that the countries from which these hoards came regarded this as unacceptable and a boycott of offending museums was threatened, policy changed. Since then, the British Museum has taken the view that museums must not give legitimacy to illegal excavation and trade by acquiring, exhibiting or researching objects that do not have a legitimate history going back to the date of signature of the Unesco Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970, and have encouraged others to follow suit.

I took part in the debates on this issue in the Bizot Group (of directors of the big international art museums) in the mid-2000s. Philippe de Montebello, then the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and James Cuno, then the director of the Art Institute of Chicago, were among those who argued that the acquisition of unprovenanced works could be a moral duty. They argued that if great works of art, however discovered, were not acquired by reputable museums, they would be lost to scholarship and the public. Against that it was argued that museums legitimising the collection of unprovenanced works would send out the message that private collection of such pieces would, eventually, be approved not deprecated. Collectors would know that, after the passage of a suitable number of years, they could show their collection in public and perhaps end up by acquiring the prestige accrued from the gift of important works to museums. This tended to sustain the illegal trade, which does so much damage to archaeological sites and the artefacts found there, and deprives us all of the invaluable information that only proper excavation can provide. Now, all major museums agree on this: indeed, having been actively pursued through the courts by the Italian government, the Getty and the Metropolitan Museum have returned illegally traded objects to Italy.

As a result, the value of unprovenanced ­material has reduced in comparison with properly provenanced material, and restitution is now regarded as right where it can be shown that objects have been illegally excavated or traded. (Few museums, however, are undertaking active, systematic provenance research to see if their collections do in fact contain such objects.)

7. Human remains

This chimes with other areas in which ethical questions about the process of acquisition or the propriety of retention have been raised. Holdings of human remains, which were ­uncontroversial until the 1980s, became the focus of increased distaste in the 1990s and were the subject of UK government legislation to enable their return in 2004. The UK department for culture’s Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums, issued in October 2005 with the explicit support of the National Museum Directors’ Conference and the Museums Association, recognised that “some [human remains] were acquired between 100 and 200 years ago from indigenous peoples in colonial circumstances, where there was a very uneven divide of power”, and recommended meticulous provenance research with open public access to the resulting information. It also provided a step-by-step guide to dealing with claims for return. In the US, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which was signed into law by president George H. W. Bush in 1990, requires federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funding to return Native American “cultural items” to lineal descendants and culturally affiliated Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organisations.

8. Nazi loot

Meanwhile, the American Art Museum Directors have in their own words “taken a leadership role in restitution of art and other property stolen by the Nazis”. Accepting that the historic wrongs done by the Nazis should be undone wherever possible, they published guidelines in June 1998 that became the basis of the Washington Principles agreed later that year. These committed museums to detailed analysis of the provenance of all objects that changed ownership in Europe during this period. Of course, not all American museums feel bound by this. British museums, led by the Tate’s director, Nicholas Serota, followed suit and in both countries meticulous provenance research has been undertaken and a number of claims for restitution have been successful: settled by return of objects to earlier owners or their heirs or by the payment of compensation. Many of them have turned out to be cases in which the works were not in fact stolen or seized but sold under pressure. The Staatsgalerie Stuttgart’s recent “return” to Canada of a Virgin and Child, formerly attributed to the Master of Flémalle, righted the wrong done when the dealer Max Stern had to sell the painting to raise the money needed to buy an exit visa from Germany for his mother. Where compensation has been agreed, it is based on the value of the work now, not on an estimate of the difference between the price actually obtained and the true value then.

This is a generous approach, but it so far applies only to the Nazi period in Europe. Attempts to extend it to victims of the Armenian genocide (1915-18; 1920-23) have made some progress in California, but it remains to be seen whether the case brought against the J. Paul Getty Museum by the Armenian Apostolic Church, for the return of seven manuscript pages from the Zeyt’un Gospels will succeed. The case has already had some impact though: the Getty has begun discussions with the Matenadaran, the Armenian museum that holds the rest of the Zeyt’un Gospels (The Art Newspaper, April 2013, p4).

9. The Axum obelisk

While a member of the Bizot Group, I had the slightly surreal experience in 2003 of seeing a chorus of nodded agreement from my international museum colleagues to the proposal by Italian museum directors that the group should take a public stand against the return of the Axum obelisk to Ethiopia. Fortunately assent evaporated when it was explained not only that Mussolini had taken the obelisk as war booty in 1937 and erected it in Rome as a sign of imperial conquest, but also that Italy had agreed its return in 1947. The Bizot Group risked being seen to apply one standard to those of European origin who had suffered losses in the period 1933-45 and quite another to Ethiopia. The obelisk was returned in 2005.

10. Icelandic sagas

Two other relevant examples both concern ­manuscripts. The manuscripts of Icelandic sagas were systematically sought out by antiquarians in the 17th and 18th centuries and taken to Denmark for preservation and study. Danish recognition of the central importance of these manuscripts to Icelandic culture was recognised by legislation passed in 1961, which led to a gradual transfer of a significant proportion of manuscripts from 1971 to 1997. Initially contentious, this became a focus of scholarly collaboration between the Arni Magnússon Institute in Reykjavík and the Amamagnean Institute in Copenhagen (which retains a significant collection of saga manuscripts) and a warm point in Danish-Icelandic relations. The consensus built around this return contrasts with the bitter feelings engendered by France’s return of a manuscript looted by a French punitive expedition that raided Korea in 1866 after the execution of a number of French missionaries. Return was first agreed by president François Mitterrand during a visit to Seoul in 1993 and was widely believed to be connected with the award of a very large contract to build a high-speed rail link to the French bidder.

Mitterrand, over-riding the protests of the then director of the Bibliothèque Nationale, Le Roy Ladurie, took one manuscript with him: returned according to the Koreans, lent according to the French. Despite a vigorous campaign led by curators in the National Library, who pointed out that the alienation of objects in French public collections is illegal, president Nicolas Sarkozy decided to honour the arrangement. An agreement was made between president Lee Myung-bak of South Korea and president Sarkozy of France that the remaining 297 volumes should be returned on the basis of a five-year renewable loan. They went back in 2011 and nobody expects that they will return, except as occasional loans.

11. The British museum

The issues raised here are of particular importance to museums in Britain since they, like American and French public collections, are responsible for significant numbers of contested objects. Turkey has recently claimed the return of a number of objects from museums around the world, most publicly the Stele of Antiochus I (right) from the British Museum. The British Museum has responded by pointing out that this was acquired by Leonard Woolley in 1924 with permission from the French authorities in Syria, where the stele was then stored. It has expressed willingness to discuss a loan for temporary exhibition but concludes a press statement from April 2012: “The trustees… cannot consent to the transfer of ownership of the stele and firmly believe that it should remain part of the British Museum’s collection where it can be seen in a world context by a global audience.” A consequence of this dispute has been that Turkey now refuses to lend to the British Museum, which also has problematic relations with Greece over the Parthenon Marbles, and with Egypt. This is a potentially damaging situation for one of the world’s greatest museums of the ancient Mediterranean.

12. The V&A

The V&A faces similar dilemmas. It emerged in the early 2000s that a Spanish monstrance in the museum’s collection had been stolen from a monastery in Spain in 1885. The V&A faced a problem. Its title was good. The monstrance had been left to the museum by someone who had good title to it under English law. The National Heritage Act 1983, governing the V&A, does not allow it to dispose of objects unless they are duplicate or useless. The monstrance was neither. So it was agreed by the V&A trustees in 2003, that the object should be returned to Spain on indefinite loan, subject to certain assurances about its care, and it was sent to the treasury of Zamora Cathedral in 2005.

Another case that arose during my time at the V&A concerned the Ethiopian treasures (including this gold crown, around 1740, right) taken from the Emperor Theodore after his defeat at the Battle of Magdala in 1868. W. E. Gladstone, who was prime minister at the time, told the House of Commons in 1871 that “he deeply lamented... that those articles, to us insignificant, though probably to the Abyssinians sacred and imposing symbols… were thought fit to be brought away by a British Army”. He went on to say that “with that just and kindly spirit which belonged to him, Lord Napier said these articles… ought to be held in deposit till they could be returned to Abyssinia”. The V&A received a letter in 2010 from the then President of Ethiopia asking for their return. But a reasonably positive response, which asked among other things for information about the gold crown returned in the 1930s, received no reply, making it reasonable to assume that it has disappeared: a reminder of the risks to preservation that can arise from return.

Towards the end of my time at the V&A, two other issues arose. One concerned a small marble head of a child taken by Sir Charles Wilson from the Sidamara Sarcophagus, now in the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul, and subsequently left to the V&A by his daughter. It seemed evident to me, my colleagues, and the trustees that it should be returned, a course of action that had been agreed in principle by the V&A in the 1930s. The head does not fit with the collections of the V&A, which has no classical antiquities, but it clearly does belong with the sarcophagus from which it was taken. I hope that its return will not be long delayed. It would be particularly unfortunate if it were argued that return would set a dangerous precedent. To suggest that the rectification of an obvious anomaly of this kind would prejudice the case for the retention of the Parthenon marbles or other antiquities would be to accept that there are parallels where there are none.

13. The Parthenon Marbles

I well remember the claim made for the return of what were then known as the Elgin Marbles in the early 1980s, the then director David Wilson’s sturdy assertion that they legally belonged to the British Museum, and his mixture of pleasure and annoyance at the visit of the then minister of culture, Melina Mercouri. Following that episode, there was a period when the Greek government was willing to discuss recognition of the British Museum’s legal ownership of the marbles on the condition that the Greek stake in them was also recognised and they were in practice shared between London and Athens.

It seems a shame that that offer was not taken up and that it was subsequently withdrawn, just as it is a shame that the risk that any sculpture lent might not be returned was not properly weighed against the risk that a failure to create partnership around the marbles might eventually make the museum’s tenure of them unsustainable. The last case I had to deal with was that of the objects looted from the Summer Palace during the European invasions of China in 1860 and 1900. On a visit in 2010 to China with Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, I suggested that we propose a programme of joint provenance research with our colleagues in the Palace and National Museums of China, so as to ascertain the history of the objects in the two museums’ collections and MacGregor put forward this proposal on behalf of the British Museum and the V&A. It seemed to me that this would be a good way to begin the process of deciding the long-term future of the looted objects: an issue that the Chinese decision, in 2009, to begin the systematic research of objects in foreign collections that might have come from the Summer Palace will make it increasingly urgent to determine. We now have abundant examples of practice, good and not-so-good, in the field of restitution. Museums in America and Europe have publicly committed themselves to the principle that restitution, or return, can and should be used to right past wrongs. We can see from the numerous examples available to us that engaging with the problems posed by contested objects has had beneficial consequences. Even the Getty Museum, having lived through the trauma of the Italian trial of its former curator of classical antiquities, Marion True, established better relations with the Italian authorities than it had before—although it might have done better still had it responded positively when the issue was first raised. The same standards must apply universally. We cannot have one rule for Scotland or Spain and another for Turkey or Nigeria. We cannot rectify wrongs wrought in Europe and ignore those committed elsewhere. We cannot proclaim that objects belong in the British Museum “where they can be seen in a world context by a global audience” without recognising that Istanbul (like Beijing, Shanghai, Delhi or Mumbai) can also claim to be a “world city” with a “global audience”.

14. The risk of doing nothing

There are real risks in action, not least to the preservation of the objects, as the return of some of the Benin bronzes in the 1950s and the Ethiopian crown in the 1930s demonstrate. But not as great as some imagine. The number of genuinely contested objects is small and inaction is riskier still. Time is not on the side of those responsible for ­contested objects. A price, in terms of the unrealised benefits of collaboration, is already being paid. More serious are the risks of future confrontation over objects that should instead engender partnership.

China has not yet asked for the return of looted objects. Mitterrand and Sarkozy’s negotiations with South Korea give us an idea of what might happen if it does. And it will of course, it is just a question of when. Proponents of an active approach to the resolution of disagreement around objects are often accused by those in the museum profession of naiveté. My own conclusion, after a lifetime working in some of the museums most affected, is that the risks of action are overestimated and the risks of inaction underestimated. But most important for me is that we owe it to our proud tradition of museums serving the public interest to see where something is wrong and take steps to set it right.

• The writer is the Master of Saint Cross College, Oxford. He was formerly the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Museums of Scotland. Before that, he was the keeper of coins and medals at the British Museum

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Restitution begins at home'