Monday, December 27, 2010


Further to my post about Edge of Empire I was reminded of Loot which I recently read. Written by Sharon Waxman it is subtitled Tomb robbers, treasure and the Great Museum Debate.

The book addresses the issue of repatriation of artefacts from the museums and collectors of the west to the countries from which they were taken. The blurb on the back cover states:
For the past two centuries, the West has been plundering the treasures of the ancient world to fill its great museums. In recent years, many of those countries have begun to fight back. Sharon Waxman leads the reader on a journey that spans continents and centuries, bringing to life the people, places, stories and treasures that lie at the heart of this fierce debate.
Although dealing mostly with ancient artefacts, it discusses collectors and Orientalists, as does Edge of Empire. It features the Elgin Marbles and the Rosetta Stone. It also addresses the issue of indiscriminate plundering of historical sites in more recent times, such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
 I was surprised how balanced this book was. I had expected it to press the case for cultural patrimony - the return of the artefacts to their country of origin. However, it is clear from the examples discussed that the issue is not this simple. The issue is not just whether the country from which the artefact was taken has secure facilities in which to store or display the item. The issue is also establishing which country is entitled to the return of the artefact. A prime example is Turkey where Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires have existed. Further, Turkey probably has more ancient Greek cities than Greece itself ever had.  Turkey claims all items found within its borders as its cultural history. However, the citizens of Turkey are mainly Muslim and see themselves as descendants of the Ottoman Empire. They have little in common with ancient polytheistic civilisations that were once there.
Greece now has a Memorandum of Understanding (“MOU”) with the United States. The terms of the MOU are unclear in that it is possible to interpret it as applying to all items of Greek origin up until the end of the Turkish occupation. Does that mean that Greece claims ownership of the same artefacts that Turkey also claims ownership of? A similar issue arises with claims by Italy for ownership of all items of Roman origin, despite the Roman Empire encompassing most Mediterranean countries.
Anyway, what has this got to do with India? India makes no claims far as I am aware, for cultural repatriation. In May 2005 Sotheby’s conducted an auction of a number of artefacts taken from Seringapatam by the British in 1799. They included personal items of Tipu Sultan, including firearms and even a foot of the royal throne. Finials from the throne have also been auctioned and parts are in the possession of the Queen, such as the peacock from the top of it.
                                                Tipu's Throne

                                              A finial
 The peacock

     The foot
The pictures of the Indian armour in the post of 25 December all featured in a Sotheby’s auction in May 2005. The cuirass sold for 18,000 pounds.
A further auction was held in April this year, seven items from Tipu fetching over 15 million pounds. Provenance of most items was not provided in either auction. The following sword went for 505,000 pounds alone.

It is clear, however, that it is a matter that weighs heavily on the minds of some Indians.  Posted on the web site of the Deccan Herald in April this year, this comment  seems to express a common sentiment:
I have been to museums in London & Paris where Tipus wealth which belongs to Indians is kept. In both these places we have to pay a heafty enterance ticket. Its amazing that british & French plundered wealth from all over the world and in the queues we see people of all nationalities paying money for a ticket to see their countrys wealth at display in a foreign land with stomach boiling.  

So, should items such as these be in personal collections? Or should they be repatriated or displayed in western museums? The decision is not an easy one to make.
Anyway, the book is a great read and thought provoking. Do yourself a favour and read it!But read Edge of Empire first to put it in perspective.

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