Disputes on Stolen Art Bring Up Complex Legal and Cultural Issues
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I'm Bob Doughty. And I'm Faith Lapidus with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English. At the British Museum in London, millions of people every year visit a famous collection of marble statues from the ancient Greek building called the Parthenon.
These finely carved works and the building they came from are widely considered the most important examples of western art and building design. Why these Greek statues are in a British museum is an important part of our story today. We explore the complex issues of cultural property, ownership, and the returning -- or keeping -- of cultural treasures.
Many people know these famous and disputed statues at the British Museum as the Elgin Marbles. They were named for Lord Thomas Elgin, who served as British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Ottoman Empire at this time included what is current day Greece as well as Turkey.
Lord Elgin decided he was in a good position to improve the national art collection of Britain. So he gathered a team of experts to help him make drawings and plaster copies of the buildings of ancient Greece within the city of Athens. In eighteen-oh-one, Lord Elgin received legal permission to also take away any pieces of stone with images or words carved on them.
Later, another legal document permitted the stone pieces, or marbles, to be sent by boat to Britain. Lord Elgin eventually sold the marbles to the British government to be housed in the British Museum. His actions have been disputed ever since. The British Museum believes it has the right to protect these works for the world to enjoy. But the Greek government has a very different opinion.
In the nineteen eighties, the Greek government began a modern campaign for the return of these statues, which Greeks call the Parthenon Marbles. During this time, the Greek cultural minister, Melina Mercouri, made the campaign an international issue by calling for their return during a United Nations meeting.
The Greek government recently built a museum near the ruins of the Parthenon to house the ancient building's sculptures. The strikingly modern Acropolis Museum is interesting for the art it contains as well as for the art that is clearly missing. The marbles are shown in the order that they were first placed in the Parthenon. There are the ancient statues that belong to Greece and there are plaster copies of the statues that are currently in Britain.
Now that the works are placed together, it is clear that they are not just individual sculptures. Together, the extraordinary sculptures tell a story about an ancient culture.
The current Greek minister of culture is Michalis Liapis. He says the new Acropolis Museum makes it possible for the sculptures now in Britain to have a large exhibit space where they can be protected. He says Britain no longer has any excuse to keep these works of art.
A spokeswoman for the British Museum in London says the Acropolis Museum represents an important effort. But she points out that the goal of the British Museum is to present all world cultures to visitors so that they can compare civilizations.
This cultural dispute is not just a concern for museums and governments. Michael Reppas helped create a group called The American Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures.
Mr. Reppas, a Greek American, says part of his history has been stolen and placed in a museum in Britain. He says the situation would be like cutting off a piece of the Statue of Liberty in New York City and placing it in a museum in another country.
Today, unlike during Lord Elgin's time, international laws protect a country's cultural treasures. Museums and governments use these laws to help negotiate the return of such property. Museums also follow a set of rules to help make sure that they received the cultural treasures fairly and legally. Often, museums do not know that objects they received in the past were gotten illegally.
Other times it is less clear whether or not a museum acted legally in buying art. For example, Marion True is an art expert who used to work for the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California. Since two thousand five, Ms. True has been on trial in Italy. She is accused of illegal actions in obtaining ancient Italian cultural objects. She is on trial in Greece for similar charges.
The Italian Cultural Ministry takes very seriously the stealing of cultural objects from Italy. A special group of Italian military police works to reclaim stolen art and archeological objects. Italy recently ended negotiations with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts over thirteen cultural treasures that are now being returned to Italy.
Italy won its claim on the objects because documents showed that they were taken illegally from the country. Italy has also agreed to loan some of the objects to the museum, so both sides ended up with a fair resolution. Katie Getchell is deputy director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She says the museum did not want to have objects that it did not rightfully own. And she says that there is a legal, moral and responsible way for governments and museums to resolve such disputes.
Italy is demonstrating its progress in this area with a new exhibit at the Quirinale, or presidential palace, in Rome. The exhibit shows sixty-eight cultural objects that Italy has reclaimed from American museums. These museums include the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the J. Paul Getty Museum. The name of the museum that formerly owned the object is on the signs explaining the history of each object.
Italian officials say the exhibit shows how much the museum world is changing its position on cultural disputes.
This change is also clear in another case between Peru and an American university in the state of Connecticut. Last year, Yale University agreed to return a large number of treasures taken from the ancient Peruvian city of Machu Picchu. In nineteen twelve, the Yale researcher and explorer Hiram Bingham rediscovered the hidden city. He brought many objects from Machu Picchu to the United States. Peru says that the objects were on loan and should have been returned long ago. After years of negotiations, Yale announced in September of last year that the two sides had reached an early agreement.
Yale has officially agreed that Peru owns the cultural objects. The university will return most of them and will be able to keep others for an extended period of time. Under the expected agreement, Yale will advise Peru on the building of a museum for the objects. The President of Yale University, Richard Levin, said the two sides have created a new way of resolving competing interests in cultural property disputes. However, it is not clear when a final agreement will be reached.
Efforts to protect cultural property increased after World War Two. During the war, Nazi Germany stole large amounts of art from the countries they invaded. In reaction, the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property was signed in nineteen fifty-four. The United Nations cultural organization has also recognized the issue. In nineteen seventy, UNESCO created a convention to prevent the illegal exportation of cultural property. Individual countries have their own laws about cultural property as well.
One example of art stolen by the Nazis during World War Two has been successfully resolved. At the Neue Gallery in New York City, visitors can see a beautiful painting of a woman named Adele Bloch-Bauer made by the Austrian artist Gustav Klimt. Adele's husband, Ferdinand, asked the artist to make the painting around nineteen-oh-seven.
In the late nineteen thirties, when Austria was under Nazi rule, Mr. Bloch-Bauer was forced to flee his country because he was Jewish. His family's collection of art was seized by Nazi leaders and later became state property.
For years Austria refused to return the art to the Bloch-Bauer family. Then, in two thousand six, the family finally won its court case and ownership of the art. They later sold the work to the owner of Neue Gallery. This painting of Adele Bloch-Bauer is not only a beautiful example of Austrian art. It also represents a powerful story about one family's successful battle over injustice.
This program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I'm Faith Lapidus. And I'm Bob Doughty. Archives of our programs with transcripts and MP3s are at voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.
Correction: This report said art expert Marion True is on trial in Greece. A Greek court dismissed the case in November. Her American lawyer says a trial date on other, lesser charges has yet to be set (and she remains on trial in Italy.)