Can we still keep, in European museums, artistic works that were stolen, or acquired extremely cheaply, from Africa, the Middle East, or Asia?
These types of pillaging also occurred between countries of the North: one of the most known being the extravagant dismantling of European monasteries and castles, which were then reassembled stone by stone in New York, in strange architectural infrastructures under the name of Cloisters.
The pillaging has continued, everywhere in the world, especially today in Syria and Iraq; the international art market feeds on these trades.
For two centuries, the pillaged countries have demanded the return of their masterpieces. Since 1834, the Greeks have demanded the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens, which were bought in 1801 at a low price by the English ambassador to the Sultan, Lord Elgin, and subsequently transported to London. A little later, the Turks demanded that the Pergamon Altar, which had been dismantled at the end of the 19th century by German archaeologists and then reassembled and installed in a museum of the same name in Berlin. Today, the Egyptians have reclaimed, among other masterpieces, the Rosetta Stone preserved for over two centuries at the British Museum in London, the Luxor Obelisk standing at the Place de la Concorde in Paris, and the Bust of Nefertiti held at the Neues Museum in Berlin.
Today, we may discern that the countries of the South must reclaim every element of their identity. The artistic treasures stolen by the great powers of yesteryear are first among these elements.
However, it may not be so simple; and what just happened to the Rio de Janeiro Museum, (created in 1818 by the Emperor Dom Joao VI, located since 1892 at the Sao Cristobal Palace, residence of the Portuguese imperial family, completely destroyed on September 3 by a fire) leads to caution: the museum had no fire exits, fire extinguishers, or smoke detectors. And all the art pieces that it housed are lost forever.
In fact, today, very few countries are safe enough for the art pieces to be truly protected in their museums.
So, what should we do? Should we store all humanity’s treasures in a couple of safes? There are international texts that tried to create a legal framework for the restitution of these art pieces. However, these texts have remained, for the most part, dead letter.
A good solution would be to create a new status for major global art treasures, paintings, and sculptures, and put them on a list, which UNESCO could create, and it would confer on these treasures the status of inalienable property of humanity. This list would complement the sites that are listed and considered to be World Heritage and those that bring together the various types of intangible world heritage.
One could consider that artistic works and treasures that are registered on these lists, which are property of humanity, are only deposited in the museums that house them today. These museums would have a special responsibility and would receive more help than others. They could lose their accreditation if they do not meet certain particularly demanding safety standards. Otherwise, these artistic works should be moved to other safer places.
Utopia? Without a doubt. Nonetheless, this is the case for anything that will allow humanity to protect its past in order to build its future.