Current topics explained by RUG professionals

Stolen art

During colonial times, white people stole art from indigenous people. Much of this art ended up in our museums. Should these museums give it back?
By Christine Dirkse

Arjen Dijkstra

University Museum

‘Museums sometimes have a hard time identifying what parts of their collections were stolen. Some art has been borrowed, either for a short time or for a long time. This is the case with the UM’s ethnological collection; a large part of that is from other museums. Sometimes no one really knows where the art comes from.

Some pieces we bought from other parties. There’s nothing nefarious about that, we make sure it’s all on the up and up. But we don’t always know where it’s originally from. It’s like buying a bicycle; if you’re paying 15 bucks for a bike on the streets, you can probably guess that that bike wasn’t acquired legally by the seller.

But if you’re buying a bicycle for a 1000 euros at the shop you don’t worry where it comes from because you assume it’s fine. It would take an in-depth investigation to find out where our pieces came from and that takes time. For that reason it’s currently difficult to say how many museums actually have stolen art as part of their collections and what should be done about it.’

Peter de Ruiter

Assistant professor of modern and contemporary art

‘The issue of stolen art is huge and complex. The most important museums in Europe – in London, Berlin, and here in the Netherlands – are filled to the brim with stolen art. I’m an art historian, not an ethicist, but I don’t think we should be frank here: we need a proper and well-founded policy to return these pieces, just like they said last week in the media.

There’s no doubt that Western colonists ‘removed’ an incredible number of items from African communities. There’s still a lot we don’t know about what happened exactly, but we have certainly profited off it intensely, both culturally and aesthetically speaking.

We should always keep the context in mind. I went to Africa for seven months and I’ve seen how important the artefacts are for the people there. Objects that we put in our museums often had or still have important ritualistic functions, whether they’re from Cameroon, Nigeria, or Benin. These objects were of extreme cultural value to the village communities, and they still are. So we really need to give it some proper and critical thought.

I think the scope of the issue of stolen art is much bigger than we realise. One, perhaps obvious, example is the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum in London. People have been arguing about those forever. It’s an impressive set of statues taken from, among other places, the Parthenon on the Acropolis. They are amazingly beautiful.

The set of statues were taken from what was then called the Ottoman Empire by Thomas Bruce (Lord Elgin) in the early nineteenth century. He later sold the stolen heritage to the British State for a large amount of money. But the British Museum will have to given them back to Athens at some point. I’m quite certain, because they’re being pressured to do so.’

Frank Verstijlen

Professor of private law

‘The colonists took cultural items with them to Europe without permission. That is a form of theft. But it’s hard to make a judgement in this case because when the art was stolen, the law in the Netherlands was different from today’s laws.

If you approach the situation with the current Dutch laws in mind, the stolen art legally belongs to the museums. Because while an object may have been obtained through criminal means, the statute of limitations may apply. Anyone who owns stolen property long enough will eventually become its rightful owners.

For normal objects, that statute is twenty years, and a longer statute applies to cultural objects and can vary depending on the type of art. But if we’re talking about art that was stolen during colonial times, those statutes of limitations have long since passed. On top of that, the special rules applying to cultural items are fairly recent still.

When museums buy stolen art from other museums, they’re technically not doing anything wrong. Because the statute of limitations has passed, the museum has become the owner of the items. Anyone buying that will have the ownership rights legally transferred to them.

So if you apply the rules as they are today, museums don’t have to return the stolen art. But these rules don’t take into account the ethical considerations, of course.’



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