Ethics of Repatriation-Egyptian Artifacts Thesis

Ethics of Repatriation-Egyptian Artifacts

Egyptians making efforts to get their artifacts back

The artifacts that get stolen from a country are hard to get back as, the country from which they are stolen would have to ask the authorities of the other country to help them find those artifacts or fight a legal battle in the courts of the other country which can not only be very time consuming but also expensive. Although now there are laws that require the countries to return the stolen items to the ones that they originally belonged to but a lot of the disputed items were returned long before these laws were implemented (Durham, 2007).

It was last year that the chief of Egyptian antiquities; Hawass got together with 25 other countries in the search of all the artifacts that were stolen or were even gifted. He said that the museums and the authorities who refused to return the artifacts would have to face serious consequences and true to his words he really did made sure that the museums who didn’t return the artifacts faced serious boycott not only from the Egyptian museums but from other countries as well. According to Hawass since he became the chief of the antiquities he had been able to recover 5,000 artifacts that were stolen or gifted (Al-Shalchi, 2010).

However, this process of getting the artifacts back requires the co-operation of various governments, the agencies working in them and most important of all, these deals and searches needs proves that the artifacts were actually stolen, illegally taken out of the country or were gifted and many a times this causes problems since there are often gaps found in the historical records (Al-Shalchi, 2010).

Arguments in favor of Returning these Artifacts

The correct and ethical approach

There is a reason why the historical artifacts are so important, it is because they tell a story about the place that they belong to and in returning something to the place that it was originally from is the correct thing to do as, it is only in that place that the real value of that artifact can be appreciated (Merryman, 2006).

Artifacts convey more knowledge when observed in the place they belong to Artifacts are a very important part of the past or the history of the place, it not only helps the people belonging to that place remember the history and the importance of their place but also let the tourists feel a part of the history by telling a story about the era in which it was made or it existed, for example; Elgin Marbles are currently being showcased in a museum in London whereas, they originally belong to Athens as they were a part of the Parthenon on the Acropolis of Athens. For this reason they are not exactly serving their purpose as, a person who has not seen that place before won’t truly be able to appreciate the beauty and the significance of those marbles. Therefore, they would do more good in Athens — the place that they actually belong to — rather than lying in a museum in London, which is so very different from the place of origin of those marbles (Merryman, 2006).

Historical part of a place

As, mentioned above it the original place where the artifacts would make the most sense because they would belong to that place, they would also mean a lot more to the people who belong to the place where the artifacts are from and since not everyone has the money or the resources to go to other countries to see a part of their heritage, it is unfair to those people as well. Therefore, the best solution is to return the artifacts to the place that they originally belong to (Merryman, 2006)..

Illegally acquired artifacts

Most of the artifacts that are not present in their place are origin are acquired under doubtful circumstances, for example; the Axum obelisk originally belongs to Ethiopia and was taken by Mussolini as a war trophy although, later on the actions of this kind were taken notice off and the obelisk was returned back to Ethiopia in 2005. Another such example is of the Parthenon Marbles that were taken by Elgin from the Ottoman authorities when they invaded Greece (Merryman, 2006).

During the colonial rule and later on by the thieves, archeologists and the adventurers thousand of artifacts were stolen or taken from Egypt. Now the Egyptian authorities want all those artifacts that are a part of their heritage back. These Egyptian artifacts can be found all over the former colonial countries. For example; the 3,500-year-old bust which belongs to the Queen Nefertiti who was the wife of the famous Pharaoh Akhenaten, is currently in Germany where it is being showcased at the newly re-opened Neues Museum in Berlin, the architect of the Great Pyramid at Giza is located in Germany as well, the Louvre palace in France has a painted Zodiac from the Dendera temple, bust of Anchhaf who was a builder of the Chepren Pyramid is currently present at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (Obaji Ori, 2009).

In 1972 there was an agreement signed by the United Nations according to which the artifacts had to be returned to the place that they originally belong to, for this reason the Egyptian archeologists are now eager to find the original basalt slap that dates as far back as 196 BC, the reason why this basalt slap is so important to the Egyptian archeologists is that it is a key to the modern interpretations of hieroglyphics; in the 1980s an ancient fresco fragment was stolen from the tomb in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt and currently it is present in a museum in Britain and is wanted back by the Egyptian archeologists. As a result of all these efforts to get their artifacts back the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities has been able to secure 5,000 artifacts since 2002 (Obaji Ori, 2009).

Artifacts; a huge source of tourist attraction

Tourism can be a huge source of income for a country and if some other country is keeping the artifacts that don’t belong there and earning tourism trade because of it, this means that they are earning what is actually the right of the country to which those artifacts originally belong to and therefore, must be returned to the place of their origin (Merryman, 2006).

When the tourism trade or the top tourist countries are talked about Egypt’s name definitely comes up as, it is a country whose economy heavily depends on the tourist trade in terms of the employment as well as the foreign currency income, but when the artifacts that belong to Egypt are found in other countries it affects the tourism for Egypt as they don’t get the tourism that they deserve because of it and since Egypt highly depends on its tourism, the artifacts belonging to it needs to get returned. Because the Egyptian government understands the importance of tourism it has been trying to increase it by introducing more and more attractive offers and packages for the tourists and also, by internationally commercializing the tourist spots in Egypt to increase the awareness and to attract more and more tourists. The Egyptian government had the target of reaching 14 million visitors by 2011 (Merryman, 2006).

Artifacts; a reminder of an oppressive past

This illegal or unfair way of keeping the artifacts reminds the people of the oppressive past that their ancestors had to face, for example; at the moment the Rosetta stone is being kept in a museum in London and although the Egyptian government has asked the British government to return their artifact but it has not happened yet, similarly, the Nigerian government has been requesting the British government to return 700 of the Benin Bronzes but their requests are constantly being denied by the British government. This refusal of the requests, rather the denial of the laws by the British government clearly reminds one of the political powers that Britain once imposed on the other nations, now it is doing this by showing a sort cultural ownership of the artifacts that actually belong to other nations. This kind of behavior is what prevents the people from forgetting the oppressive past and the injustices done to their ancestors (Merryman, 2006).

Availability of better resources to move artifacts

In the past it was considered a difficult task to transfer an artifact from one place to another let alone a different country or continent. However, now this can be easily done as, now the technology has improved a lot, there are more resources and better equipment. Where, in the past there used to be the fear of damaging the artifacts in the process of transportation now, these chances are minimum as all the factors such as; suitable temperature, ideal environment, the amount of humidity etc., can be controlled. Therefore, the transferring was never as easy in the past has it is now (Merryman, 2006).

Counter-arguing the opponents

Artifact protection is an obligation

As the artifacts are a link to the past and they tell us about the culture, heritage, norms, events that took place at the time from which they were, therefore, it is very important to protect them. As, they can help our coming generations in understanding where they come from and what situations their ancestors faced which have bought them where they are today, for this reason it is said that if the artifacts can be well protected in the countries that are wealthier and have better resources than the ones that they originally belong to, then these resourceful countries should be allowed to keep the artifacts so that they can protect them for the generations to come (Waxman, 2008).

However, this claim would have definitely been a lot more understandable in the 19th century when, not a lot of countries had the resources or the technology to properly protect those artifacts, but today, in the 21st century almost all the countries have the resources to protect the artifacts in such a way that they remain in almost exactly the same way that they actually are. Therefore, now it is the duty of all those countries that had been protecting those artifacts to return them back to their original countries and let the artifacts be placed where they actually belong (Waxman, 2008).

There is a lot more to an artifact’s historical context than merely its place of origin

Although the artifacts are of great importance with regards to the representation of history of the place that they belong to but, they also represent all the eras or the historical events that they went through, not only of the place that they belong to but, also of the places that they come in contact with when they are kept at places other than their place of origin, for example; the Egyptian obelisk that is currently placed in the Piazza di San Pietro in Rome was bought in the Caligula reign to Italy and now it is not just an Egyptian artifact that is present in Rome rather it has become a symbol of the dominance showed by the Romans in the ancient world and it also represents the European Christian culture that followed that era. There is another Egyptian obelisk that is present in New York, it was brought there in the 19th century and it shows the association that exists between the Freemasons and their predecessors (Waxman, 2008).

The oppression, theft and dominance that these artifacts now represent is not something to be proud of. What they should represent is the richness of the cultural from the time that they belong to and should inspire the people to find more about the past rather than remembering the cruelty and injustice done to nations by other dominant nations (Waxman, 2008).

Accessibility of the artifacts to larger audience

The purpose of displaying the artifacts should be to let large number of people see them rather than merely displaying them in their point of origin where they won’t have a lot of visitors. For this reason these artifacts should be showcased in the places with large collections of other artifacts so that people get more attracted about going to those places as they will be able to see a diversity of culture in just a single place. Like in the UK there are a lot of museums who are being funded by external sources and for this reason they don’t charge fee to the visitors for viewing the artifacts (Waxman, 2008).

The people who would be willing to spend money to go to Paris or London to see those artifacts can come to the place of origin of the artifacts to view them as well. Therefore, it makes a lot more sense to keep them at the place where they belong to not only because they belong to that place but, also because there not only will the visitors enjoy watching them but they will also be able to understand the importance of the culture and the history and they will be able to relate the artifacts to their place of origin (Waxman, 2008).

Most of the artifacts are completely legal

Just because some of the artifacts that were stolen have to be returned don’t mean that all those that were acquired by completely legal means needs to be sent back to their place of origin. In fact, most of the countries from whom these artifacts were acquired are have no problems what so ever with their artifacts being on display in other countries. Although, the artifacts that have some symbolic value or are controversial such as; Elgin Marbles or the Axum obelisk is a completely different issue (Waxman, 2008).

Because the number of artifacts that have been stolen or illegally acquired by the countries is so huge they don’t ask for all of their items to be returned as they don’t have that much resources or time, therefore, the noble thing to do here is to return what belongs to others as this would not only be the ethically right thing to do but will also improve the relations among the nations which is what many nations are trying to do today (Waxman, 2008).

International law and ethics

It was in 2005 that the giant Aksum stele was transported back to Ethiopia; the stele was taken by the Mussolini’s troops in the 1937 and was placed close to the Arch of Constantine in Rome. The stele dates back to the 300 AD, was 80-foot long and 160 tons heavy. It was transported back by air, although not in a single piece as it originally was because of its heavy weight, it was divided into three pieces. This whole thing cost about $8 million and this operation was over looked by UNESCO, which is an organization that tries to protect the cultural rights of the nations as it believes that however power, wealthy or resourceful a country might be, when it comes to the cultural rights all the nations have same rights and privileges. It was the UNESCO that persuaded the UN Convention of 1972 to consider the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage. The stele was taken by the Italian army in the 1937 without the full consent of the Ethiopian authorities and since then talks were being held between the two countries to return the stele to its place of origin, however, in 2000 Italy also became very active regarding the return of the artifacts owned by it that were present in other countries, it also took the help of the International Law Courts to get its artifacts back. This was one of the reasons why Aksum stele was returned to Ethiopia after almost 70 years (Hunt, 2010).

A lot has changed in the past few centuries regarding the acquisition of the artifacts, where, in the past the royal, elite and the influential people were the ones who could get whatever they wanted just because they had the power and the money now, however, the people who deserve the artifacts gets them, at least most of the times and same goes for the countries. Now because of the laws that protect the cultural rights of the nations the powerful and resourceful nations can’t just claim what isn’t theirs. However, even with all this the answer to some of the problems still aren’t as simple and one such problem is of the Ottoman empire that don’t really care about the Classical antiquity rather it only follows the firman, which is a permit according to which they can take whatever r artifact they think has no historical or religious connection with the Ottoman or the Istanbul history. Although when it came to the Greek sculptures quasi-legitimate was what these permits were often involved in which mean they would sell these artifacts to the Europeans, it didn’t matter if they were taken by royal sovereigns, Elgin or Newton. But all this has changed since the 18th century and now the new antiquities laws have been implemented as well which should be respected and followed. However, United States and Britain weren’t a party to these laws until the 1983 and 2001 respectively, because of which Britain still has hundreds of Benin Bronzes that they got in the 1897 and that belongs to Nigeria and although many cultural and diplomatic channels have asked it to return them to the place that they belong to but British are authorities are busy in ignoring all these requests (Hunt, 2010).

There are a lot of books that have been written on the trafficking of the artifacts that has been taking place since centuries. One of those books is the Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities, From Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Museums which was written by Peter Watson’s and Cecilia Todeschini (New York: Public Affairs / Perseus, 2006) in this book the huge network of the artifact trafficking was talked about and the dirty trail from Mediterranean tombs to North American museums was uncovered. “Operation Geryon” was started by Italy in 1994 and it was through this operation that it became evident how the wealthy and resourceful collectors have been manipulating the provenance laws that were there to ensure that the artifacts remained at their place of origin. Roberto Medici who was an Italian dealer like many others violated all these laws, among these dealers there was a huge number of U.S. curators and the museum directors. An example of this kind of dealings is the Euphronios Krater that in 2008 was finally given back by the Metropolitan Museum in New York to Italy after a long period of legal negotiations (Hunt, 2010).

Another huge reason for this trafficking of the artifacts is the fact that many of the guards who are suppose to protect the archeological sites don’t earn enough money and in other to bring some food home they start selling the artifacts for some money. However, many archeologists who even know about all this prefer to remain ignorant of the fact as the people who do try to stop all this tend to disappear or are handed over to the authorities for something they haven’t done (Hunt, 2010).

It is the moral and ethical responsibility of all of us to protect the artifacts and to prevent the trafficking from taking place as, these artifacts are worth a lot more than what the illegal transport of them would provide us with. Therefore, it is the responsibility of all the people whether scholars, dealers, collectors, museums to protect these important parts of cultural heritage for our generations to come. It has also been observed that this trafficking may at times be associated with a lot bigger problems such as slavery, arms and narcotics as, these artifacts may be used to get money for all these other illegal activities. As, it was said by David Gill that when the artifacts are collected illegally they only gives rise to the ultimate loss of knowledge, looting and the destruction of the historical sites from where these artifacts are acquired from. He said this in the 2009 review of book “Who Owns Antiquity?” By James Cuno. Because all these incidences the collectors, dealers and all the museums have become a lot more careful now about where the artifacts are from and how they are acquiring them (Hunt, 2010).


Al-Shalchi, H. (2010). Egypt to museums: Return our stolen treasures. Accessed on October 20, 2011 from Durham, M. (2007). Blood from a Durham, M. (2007). Turnip: Little Hope Remains For Carted-Off Antiquities. UCSD Guardian: Accessed on October 20, 2011 form

Elia, Ricardo J. (1993). U.S. Cultural Resource Management and the ICAHM Charter,” Antiquity 67, no. 255: 426 — 438.

Gill, D. (2009). Review of Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage. Accessed on October 20, 2011 from:

Hunt, P. (2010). International Law and the Ethics of Antiquities Trafficking. Stanford Journal of International Relations. Vol. XI No: 2, 81.

Merryman, J.H. (2006). Imperialism, Arts and Restitution. Cambridge University Press. Accessed from:

Obaji Ori, K. (2009). Egypt demands return of stolen artifacts from Europe and U.S. Accessed on October 20, 2011 from:

UNESCO. (1970). Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Accessed on October 20, 2011 from

Watson, P and Cecilia Todeschini. (2006). The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities, From Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Museums. New York: Public Affairs: Perseus.

Waxman, S. (2008). Loot: The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World. Times Books.

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