Ahmed Jaafar, Dubai
Nigeria welcomed the agreement of the London Museum to return the collection of Benin bronzes stored there after these priceless artifacts were stolen in West Africa more than a century ago.
The Horniman Museum has agreed to transfer ownership of 72 artifacts to the Nigerian government, including 12 copper plates known as the "Benin Bronze" that British soldiers took from Benin City to their country in 1897, according to the Wall Street Journal .
The Horniman Museum collection represents only a small part of the total collection of 3,000 to 5,000 items captured by British soldiers in the Kingdom of Benin in the late 19th century, when the United Kingdom was intent on expanding its colonial possessions in West Africa. The Nigerian Ministry of Information and Culture has formally asked the British Museum to return Nigerian antiquities in October 2021. Nigeria has 900 different bronze items in this museum.
The British Museum is not doing the same work as the Horniman Museum, but says it is working with representatives from various museums in several European countries, as well as with Nigerian officials from the Royal Palace in Benin, to find a mutually acceptable solution.
Nigeria already has an agreement with Germany to return hundreds of artifacts taken out of the country. Some US museum organizations are also reviewing their ownership of stolen African artifacts.
In March, the Smithsonian Institution said it would return 39 Benin bronzes to Nigeria. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has already returned three artifacts to Nigeria in June.
On Wednesday, August 10 this year, the United States returned 30 artifacts related to the Khmer heritage, Cambodia reports the New York Times . Among these priceless relics is a 4-ton statue of the Hindu god Ganesha.
Some of these artifacts came from American museums such as the Denver Art Museum and some were privately owned. A number of Arab countries are also insisting on relentless demands for the return of their colonial-era looted antiquities, and they are issuing official requests reflecting public opinion to return priceless artifacts.
In July 2021, Iraq was able to secure the return from the US of 17,000 smuggled cuneiform clay tablets, which according to the Ministry of Culture are the "largest collection" discovered by archaeologists in the country, as well as many other valuable items belonging to the Mesopotamian civilization that were plundered during the war and during the crisis of power.
During the Arab Spring and the many years of chaos that followed, some countries were subjected to new looting of thousands of valuable artifacts, but today they are striving to return them back. The demands for the return of stolen antiquities were not only for items stolen after the 2011 protests, but also for antiquities exhibited in various museums around the world that belonged to various Arab countries and were removed during the colonial era more than a century ago. In Egypt alone, there are more than a million stolen artifacts that are currently in various museums around the world, Egyptian archaeologist Monica Khanna said in an interview with Al-Hurra TV.
She launched a "popular" campaign in her country for the return of looted Egyptian antiquities, stressing that she is currently conducting a "scientific study" in which she expects to take an inventory of such items, attribute them and submit this information to the Egyptian authorities. “We are doing scientific research at the Government Records House in order to prepare all the necessary justifications, and the state authorities to file a lawsuit,” Hanna says. “So far, we are at the beginning,” she adds… The problem is the degree of awareness of the people… When the public consciousness matures, the government will definitely start to act.” In her opinion, Egypt should take advantage of the current "momentum" and restore its heritage. But to achieve this goal, she adds, the campaign must coincide with the 200th anniversary of the decipherment of the Rosetta Stone and the 100th anniversary of the discovery of Cape Nefertiti.
Last March, a French court indicted a 40-year-old German citizen of Lebanese descent, who owns an exhibition hall in Hamburg, for dealing in antiquities looted from the Middle East in the Middle East in during the Arab Spring, and especially in Egypt. On June 26, 2020, similar charges were brought against French Mediterranean archaeologist Christo Konecki and his wife Richard Semper after their detention pending investigation ended, after which they were released by court order under police supervision. The defendants, who are authoritative figures in the archaeological circles of the French capital, are suspected of “laundering” looted antiquities in a number of countries that have experienced political instability since 2010 and throughout the “Arab Spring”, primarily in Egypt, as well as in Libya, Yemen . and Syria
For his part, the director of the Iraqi Institute for the Preservation of Antiquities and Heritage in Erbil, the head of the Archaeological Association in Iraqi Kurdistan - Abdallah Khurshid believes that the increase in the rate of return of looted antiquities is associated with an improvement in the security situation in many Arab countries. Khurshid said in an interview with al-Hurra newspaper that "the security situation is now much better than before and the (government) departments of antiquities are working hard to recover the stolen artifacts." Iraqi authorities are working "around the clock," he added, to return Iraqi antiquities in cooperation with foreign embassies in Baghdad, noting that there are counter demands from the population to return these treasures to the country.
Recently, US prosecutors accused 81-year-old Lebanese George Lutfi of being involved in the possession and smuggling of stolen antiquities for decades. But Lutfi denies the allegations despite a warrant for his arrest. According to The New York Times, the allegations against Lutfi are part of a larger campaign organized by the Manhattan Attorney General's office to restitute the antiquities to the countries from which they were stolen. About a decade ago, the Attorney General's Office, together with the Department of Homeland Security, launched a major investigation into the whereabouts of looted antiquities, claiming the conviction of 12 smugglers and the confiscation of more than 4,300 artifacts. Khurshid believes that "the Arab countries, like Iraq, lost many ancient objects", especially Syria, Yemen and Libya, but other countries helped Baghdad to return their antiquities, such as Jordan and the countries of the Persian Gulf.
In turn, Khanna believes that several Arab countries have also lost antiquities stolen from their vaults and collections, which are currently in Western countries, but said that they are currently not coordinating their actions with any country within their framework. new campaign. “All the Arab countries have stolen some of their museum treasures,” she added. “But until there is no concerted action, we will try (for starters) to demonstrate to the government and the public the results of our scientific research over the course of two years.” The statuette of Nefertiti's head is one of the most outstanding pieces that Hanna demands to be returned to Egypt, and it is a very valuable artifact currently on display in the Berlin Museum. Cairo has repeatedly demanded its return, since the Second World War, but to no avail. .
In January 2011, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, the government body that oversees all German museums, rejected an Egyptian request to return the statuette of the head of Queen Nefertiti, which attracts more than a million visitors every year. German archaeologists led by Ludwig Burckhardt discovered this 3400-year-old figurine on December 6, 1912 in the Tel al-Amarna district in the province of Minya, at the site of the city of Akhetaten, founded by King Akhenaten, the husband of Nefertiti - the capital of Egypt after coming to power during the Eighteenth Dynasty .
According to Khurshid, not only were antiquities stolen in Iraq after the chaos that swept the country after the US intervention in 2003, but the entire country was systematically looted in the period before and after the First World War. “Antiquities have been smuggled out of Iraq since the First World War by official and illegal means, whether through random excavations or previous agreements with the Ottoman Empire to export these items,” he says. Regarding the number of items stolen in Iraq, Khurshid says: “It is impossible to determine exactly how many. Many of them were not registered after they were found in the ground and fell into the hands of smugglers, and then - in museums. Some were smuggled or simply stolen from an Iraqi museum. Most of them have been included in the lists that the General Directorate of Antiquities and Heritage exchanges with interested countries with a view to their return.
Archaeological sites across Iraq have been subjected to massive destruction, looting and destruction during the wars that have swept through the country in recent years, especially in the phase that followed the intervention of an international coalition led by the United States to overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003. According to AFP, about 15,000 antiquities and 32,000 artifacts from 12,000 archaeological sites have been stolen from the Baghdad Museum alone since 2003. ISIS, which took control of a third of the country in June 2014, has also destroyed numerous archaeological sites, most of which are in northern Iraq.
Khurshid pointed out that this paramilitary organization destroyed many antiquities and its members stole valuable items to sell them to finance their activities. He said that "every museum in the world apparently has exhibits from Iraq that can only be exhibited decades later."
Translation: Pavel Gulkin