The fine art of returning art

Who is the rightful owner of ancient artifacts – the famed Elgin marbles taken from the Parthenon, say, or the elegant Nefertiti head? Is it the museums and collectors housing them, or the lands from which these antiquities came?

The question takes on more relevance with each new case of ownership being passed back to the country of origin. In February, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art agreed to return several prized items to Italy. Last week, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles agreed to return two ancient works to Greece. Both countries claimed the items were stolen.

The Getty deal has emboldened Greece, which is drawing up a list of hundreds of suspect objects. "Whatever is Greek, wherever in the world, we want back," Giorgos Voulgarakis, Greek's minister of culture, told the British newspaper The Guardian.

That might send shudders through the museum world, but the key criteria for Greece and other countries is valid: They seek objects they believe were taken illegally. But just as important, they should keep in mind the concept of stewardship – the care of an object and the idea behind it.

In 1970, a UNESCO treaty banned the illicit trade of cultural items, though it excluded works purchased before that year. Still, the contemporary market has been a hot one for clever tomb robbers, and countries have often lacked evidence to win their cases.

Determining the history of legal ownership, or provenance, is not easy. Time passes, wars happen, documents are lost. Even when the history is known, it can be open to interpretation. Greece wants its "stolen" Parthenon marbles back from the British Museum. The museum says they're not stolen – that Lord Elgin received permission from the Ottomans, who ruled Greece in 1801, when removal began.

Museums have played a needed role protecting and displaying antiquities that otherwise may have been destroyed, harmed, or forgotten through neglect in their place of origin. Is it possible to untangle cases decades or hundreds of years old, or handle what may be a sea of new rendition requests?

And yet, the museum world has proven itself capable of dealing with information gaps and legal complexity – returning, for instance, many art works stolen by the Nazis to rightful owners. It has also become more sensitized to provenance. A 2006 survey by the Association of Art Museum Directors, which includes museums in North America, showed that two-thirds of members have adopted the association's 2004 provenance guidelines.

Meanwhile, the countries of origin are doing their part. Italy's been ferocious in investigating stolen antiquities. And Greece has improved its preservation practices, building a museum at the foot of the Parthenon to hold antiquities, including the Elgin marbles, should they ever be returned.

In recent rendition cases, parties have moved toward compromise, such as ownership reverting to the country of origin in exchange for long-term loans of valuable objects. The emphasis on loaning moves the art world further in the direction of stewardship – perhaps a more meaningful framework in an ever more globalized world.

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