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Published: Sunday, 3/6/2011 - Updated: 3 years ago

Who owns cultural treasures looted in the past?

RECENTLY, the Toledo Museum of Art returned a porcelain dinner piece to Germany, a first in the 109-year history of the museum.

The piece, called the Nereid Sweetmeat Stand, was manufactured in 1773 as part of a 3,000-piece dinner set and was stolen during World War II.

The museum bought it from a reputable dealer in 1956. But Brian Kennedy, the museum director, said that the proper thing to do was to return the artifact to its rightful owners.

Perhaps.

Behind the glossy catalogues and ornate galleries of the art world, there is a subterranean world of intrigue and deceit where trafficking in stolen artwork and artifacts flourishes unchecked. It raises the inevitable question: How far in the past one can stretch the claim of ownership?

In the case of the Toledo piece, it was rather easy. But how about the classical Greek statues called the Elgin Marbles, which once adorned the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis of Athens?

Thomas Bruce, the Earl of Elgin, was the British envoy to the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 19th century. Armed with a suspect document indicating Ottoman consent, he systematically stripped the buildings of their sculptures and carted them off to London.

There are at least four international conventions that address the thorny issues of ownership of cultural artifacts. They prohibit theft of and illicit trafficking in cultural property, and demand the restitution of stolen objects to their countries of origin. They fall short because of the intransigence of countries and institutions in possession of other people's treasures.

In 1911, Yale historian Hiram Bingham rediscovered the pre-Columbian 15th-century Inca site known as Machu Picchu in Peru. He borrowed 5,000 artifacts for study, and they have been in the permanent collection of Yale's Peabody Museum ever since. After years of wrangling, Yale agreed last month to return the artifacts.

Some would call Bingham a cultural robber. Others would compliment him for discovering the site and preserving priceless artifacts from an important period of Inca culture.

In 1857, a report by the British colonial government in India described the cultural treasures buried in the lost cities of the Silk Road. That report would attract fortune hunters from around the world.

Since the 2nd century B.C., the Silk Road, one of the great thoroughfares of the ancient world, had connected China in the east with the Roman Empire in the west. The route crossed the southern fringes of the Taklamakan Desert in China, where a number of oasis towns flourished for 1,500 years.

As shorter and safer sea routes were discovered, trade on the Silk Road declined. In due course, these oasis cities and their fabulous treasures were swallowed by the desert.

Peter Hopkirk's 1984 book Foreign Devils on the Silk Route chronicles the exploits of these fortune hunters. Whatever cultural treasures they unearthed -- wall paintings, statues, ancient manuscripts -- they carted off to their home countries. The Chinese have tried to get the treasures back, but to no avail.

(As an aside, the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin, one of these "foreign devils," discovered the source of the Indus River in western Tibet in 1911. Eighty-five years later, in 1996, I followed his footsteps to the source of that river.)

Then there is the turbulent, fascinating history of the fabulous 105-carat Koh-i-Noor diamond, now part of the British Crown Jewels. Mined in the 14th century in the kingdom of Golconda in southern India, the jewel has been the focus of wars, intrigues, and changes of ownership for hundreds of years.

At different times, it has been in the possession of Indian, Persian, and Afghan kings. Ranjit Singh, the Sikh ruler of the Punjab, was the last Indian ruler to own it. After his death in 1839, the British East India Company captured his kingdom.

In 1877, when Queen Victoria became Empress of India, she was presented the diamond as a gift of the Indian people. I doubt the people of India were part of that decision. So who rightfully owns the diamond? Both India and Pakistan claim it.

Last year, British Prime Minister David Cameron was asked about competing ownership claims. He said that the gem could not be returned to India because that would set an unworkable precedent. "If you say yes to one, you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty," he was quoted as saying.

So while the debate and the controversy continue, the Elgin Marbles, ancient Buddhist manuscripts, Incan artifacts, a priceless diamond, and countless other looted treasures remain in the firm grip of their current owners.

Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade.

Contact him at: aghaji@bex.net.



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