The recent popular people’s uprising in Egypt finally resulted in the ouster of President Mubarak and his administration after this dictator had ruled his country with an iron fist for more than three decades. An ugly side of this momentous milestone in Egyptian history was the plundering of some of the most important national treasures housed at its world-renowned Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the nation’s capital, and covering more than 5000 years of its glorious civilisation.
How did this daring raid happen, especially as the huge and grand museum complex is well-guarded with many guards and soldiers day and night to thwart any attempts to steal its priceless exhibits? The answer is simple. When close to a million agitated protestors had gathered in a large square in front of the presidential palace and other important government buildings who refused to disperse unless the President agreed to resign immediately. additional troops including those stationed at this Museum were urgently deployed there to help control and, if necessary, to suppress these potentially militant protestors as well as to ensure the safety of Mubarak and his ministers. This gave the well-organised armed looters a golden opportunity to plunder this artifacts-rich premier national museum. They overpowered the museum guards and got away with numerous artifacts, including 63 pieces of very rare antiquities in the world, and also damaging many others before some troops were rushed back there to prevent further plundering. Among the pieces stolen were some choice pieces belonging to the famed Tutankamun Collection, the crown jewel of this Museum’s entire stock. The biggest loss is a world-famous limestone statue of Akenaton holding an offering table. United Nations’ UNESCO, its educational, scientific and cultural arm, immediately appealed to the public and institutions not to import, export or deal in these stolen artifacts.
Another ancient civilisation, Iraq, had lost even more artifacts to gangs of looters during the Gulf Wars of 1991 and 2003. The latter led to the overthrow of President Saddam Hussien’s autocratic regime and the occupation of that country by the American-led allied military forces. In the first War, the American and allied troops were implicated for removing some 4000 pieces of valuable artifacts from the capital Baghdad’s National Museum and at other sites. In the second War local artifact raiders took away tens of thousands of pieces from the National Museum alone, right under the noses of the US troops who did nothing to stop them which they could easily have done. This incident is all the more regrettable as UNESCO and leading American and other Western academics had earlier alerted the US Government to the danger of this happening and urged them to take effective preventive actions to preempt it. The failure of the US Government to prevent the plundering seems to lend credence to the widely held view that their hatred for Saddam Hussien was so deep-seated that they suffered no pangs of conscience to allow the looters to help themselves to the invaluable artifacts housed at the National Museum. Soon after the raid of the Museum, some stolen pieces began to make their appearance in US and other Western antique markets as well as in the black market of Baghdad. Due to the public outcry worldwide over the failure of the victors to prevent this happening, several countries, including the US, took remedial measures to prohibit the import, export and dealings in these stolen goods. Consequently, thousands of pieces were later recovered and returned to the rightful owner.
Historically, the plundering of the heritage of a vanquished nation or of a colony or a weaker nation would not raise too much of an eye brow as it was regarded as a legitimate perquisite of war for the victor. This unfortunate legacy had continued into the Second World War when Nazi Germany and its ally Japan likewise removed to their own countries the choice national treasures of the occupied lands in order to fill the galleries of their own museums. However, with the advent of the United Nations in 1945 and the subsequent enactment of international conventions as well as the emergence of more cogent public opinions against such barbaric practice, this discredited tradition has largely ceased to hold sway. Be that as it may, many rich and influential nations are still holding on to their historic spoils which have made their museums world-famous. This is because these international conventions can only persuade, but cannot compel, recalcitrant nations to return their ill-gotten gains against their wishes. In this connection, ancient civilisations like China, Egypt, Greece, India, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Turkey had suffered much losses of their national treasures and are powerless to recover them, despite continuing attempts to do so. As an example, China had been a major victim in this regard because its 5000-year old civilisation and vast territory had yielded an abundance of artifacts and it is estimated that, for more than 110 years, when China was militarily weak and economically poor. More than one million artifacts had been stolen from that country and are now on display or hidden in the store rooms of more than 2000 overseas museums, mostly in the West. Now that China is relatively rich and has become a world power again, it has increasingly and relentlessly sought the return of their stolen national treasures but without much success. In fact, only in recent years, three world-renowned institutions, namely British Museum, Louvre Museum in Paris and New York’s Metropolitan Museum, had jointly issued a public statement that they would not return their Chinese artifacts to their country of origin. Neither did China fare better with other museums that have significant Chinese collections. In the face of such foreign refusals, patriotic Chinese corporations and affluent citizens had resorted to buying historically important Chinese artifacts still in foreign hands at international auctions. Needless to say, they had to pay millions of US dollars for any single item in order to donate it to the Chinese Government as a patriotic gesture. Two examples will suffice. Two bronze animal heads looted by British and French troops from Beijing’s imperial Summer Palace in 1860 which they burnt down when they invaded China were bought by a well-known Chinese corporation which donated them to the Chinese Government. Likewise, a bronze horse head also stolen from the same palace was purchased at another auction by Macao’s casino mogul, Stanley Ho, who also donated it to China.
Can an aggrieved nation seek the assistance of United Nations to regain cultural artifacts illegally taken from it by another country?
The answer is both no and yes. The aggrieved nation cannot invoke the UN’s help through its Security Council or its International Court of Justice because disputes on cultural properties do not come within their ambit, unlike territorial disputes or acts of aggression by one country against another. However, its UNESCO arm has enacted several international conventions governing rightful ownership of stolen cultural artifacts and countries which have ratified any or all of them are expected to comply with their provisions, albeit they cannot be compelled to do so if these conventions run counter to their domestic legislation on the subject of dispute or are against their national interests to do so. In this connection, several powerful nations, including US and Britain, have yet to ratify some of these conventions for the reasons mentioned above. On the other hand, UNESCO can and do play a mediator’s role to help the parties to negotiate for a mutually acceptable settlement. These conventions are as follows:
- The Hague Convention 1954 is on the protection and return of cultural properties illegally removed from another country in times of war.
- This was followed by the Paris Convention 1970, which prohibits the illegal import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property by any country.
- The landmark convention of 1983 recognises the right of the country of origin to reclaim the return of cultural property removed from its territory on terms to be mutually agreed between the parties.
- In more recent years, the Unidroit Convention 1995 governs the return of illegally exported stolen cultural properties to individuals or institutions.
UNESCO’s tireless and continuing efforts in assisting the disputing parties to resolve amicably the rightful ownership of disputed cultural properties had resulted in the restitution of some of these to their countries of origin. The most striking of these successes are as follows:
- The Aidonia Treasure – An American collector of 312 pieces of this treasure comprising ancient jewellery which belonged to Greece’s Assidonia Archeological Site were, after a prolonged bitter dispute, finally returned to Greece in 1996, almost 30 years after it was looted from that site .
- The Lydian Hoard–a total of 363 pieces of assorted artifacts, which were stolen from an archeological site in Turkey were finally returned to that country by the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 1993, almost 30 years after it was looted from that site.This is by far the most famous repatriation of antiquities in recent decades.
- The return of the Beard of Sphinx by Germany to Turkey, after a long period of often frustrating and acrimonious negotiations. This helped to strengthen the diplomatic relations of the two countries.
- Another success in recent years was the return by Denmark of the “Codex Regius” (The King’s Volume) and the “Flateyjanbok” (The Book of the Flat Land) to Iceland.
- After prolonged negotiations, America’s Yale University has finally agreed to return to Peru thousands of Inca era artifacts taken from its renowned Machu Picchu citadel almost 100 years ago.
- Japan has finally agreed to return numerous pieces of rare artifacts plundered by its colonial regime in Korea, which was colonised by Japan from 1895 to 1945.
- Extremely rare 7th century Buddhist manuscripts stolen from China’s Dunhuang Grottoes nearly a century ago were ceremoniously returned to China by a Japanese collector in 1997.
I would like to share with viewers an article that I wrote on this subject entitled Relic raiders, which was published by Singapore’s Sunday Times in 2001, and it is reproduced immediately after this article.
Lam Pin Foo