Recently, the Antiquities Chief of Egypt, Zahi Hawass, has been asking that several prominent museums return several of the biggest and most well-known artifacts of that country back to Egypt. Among them is the Zodiac of Dendera, which is located in the Louvre, as well as the Rosetta Stone, which has been displayed in the British Museum for two centuries. Already, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has promised to return nineteen items that were found in the excavation of King Tut, and were fixtures of the museum for tens of years. Hawass plans to use these items to populate a Cairo-based national museum, which is intended to go up in 2013. (Khalil, 2010)
The UNESCO Treaty of 1970 states that any current discoveries made by researchers after the year 1970 cannot be unearthed unless they have express permission from the ruling government of the country where they made the discovery. According to Dr. James Cuno, the director of the Art Institute of Chicago, this provision has only increased the number of instances of museum looting, as the laws of this provision permit countries to restrict the export of valuable artifacts to other countries, which is creating black markets that are sending these looted artifacts to areas that do not honor UNESCO 1970, such as Asia and the United Arab Emirates. (Ratloff, 2009)
This argumentative essay will provide arguments that ultimately denounce the idea of sending valuable historical artifacts back to Egypt from the museums where they currently reside, as well as viewing counterarguments for this particular stance. The aim is to show that, while moral obligation is to return artifacts to countries from where they came, ancient Egyptian artifacts belong to common culture of all humanity, and museums in which artifacts are on display should not be required to return them to Egypt.
First Supporting Point
No culture or persons owns cultural property abandoned by its original owners. In Young’s article “Cultures and Cultural Property,” he argues that “no one can claim to have inherited property that has been abandoned.” (2007) According to the rules of common law, a piece of property that has not been strictly inherited from one owner to another falls into a state of nature. The property then becomes abandoned, both from an individual and a culture. Consequently, whoever finds the artifact first has the right to lay claim to it.
There can be no strict sense that a culture is permitted to inherit any abandoned property that it finds in its land of origin, for there are several precedents disproving this. The Athenians, Spartans and Thebans are all collectively important parts of Greek culture, but, as the Athenians were often in conflict with the Thebans and Spartans, it would be very strange for them to consent to their mortal enemies sharing ownership of some of their most important cultural artifacts. Another instance of this is when the Saanich people laid claim to the Mount Newton Cross Roads Stone Bowl after its discovery, despite the fact that it was made by clans that differed in cultural ancestry nearly two millennia before the Saanich, as they exist today, made their home in that peninsula. Young argues that, when a culture is requesting ownership of abandoned cultural property, they are presuming that the original owners would consent to this inheritance, which may not necessarily be true. (Young, 2007)
Second Supporting Point
Ancient cultural artifacts represent a shared cultural heritage that belongs to the entire world, not just the country of origin or discovery.
According to the UNESCO 1970 preamble, greater attention must be paid to globalization and the idea that the world is a more homogenized place; more and more people are relocating to countries that are different from those that housed their ancestors, and that necessitates a greater, more global understanding of cultural property, with less of an emphasis on strict ownership on the country of origin. The UNESCO 1970 Treaty places high among its priorities the concept that cultural property must be preserved, but the subject of settling actual ownership is ignored. There are numerous disputes over ownership of cultural property that are still left unsolved or ambiguous, given the limited scope of power that the convention possesses. (Doyle, 2009)
In the case of Hawass and his claims that the Rosetta Stone belongs to Egypt, historical evidence suggests that the cultural importance of the stone lies with more than just that country; in fact, according to Tierney, “the modern state of Egypt didn’t exist when [the Rosetta Stone] was discovered in 1799.” It was not until the discovery and examination of the stone by Napoleon’s scholars on an expedition to Egypt that its cultural importance was discovered and giving the stone to England after losing the war. Its ultimate purpose was not discovered by Egypt, but by a partnership of British and French scholars who deciphered the text. (Tierney, 2009)
Young argues that “some items of cultural property simply have such a high degree of value for everyone that everyone ought to have access to them,” and that it is the responsibility of the owner of the property to give works with high aesthetic or cultural value a public exhibition. (2007) The concept of collective cultural ownership of an artifact is similar to the claim that appreciators of fine art have to a piece that someone else possesses.
Third Supporting Point
A museum should be able to claim possession of artifacts displayed and made accessible to the public. Doyle states that “the 1970 UNESCO Convention recognizes that there is a greater need to make cultural property available to everyone, rather than rely on strict retention rules that give full and complete ownership rights to the property’s originative country.” (2009) In addition to that, Doyle’s argument details the principle that a claim of adverse possession is entirely valid for museums in order to retain cultural property that they provide for public consumption and enjoyment. In James Cuno’s book “Who Owns Antiquity?”, he denounces scholars for not standing up for museums and public areas for housing antiquities, instead allowing government leaders to abuse those same pieces for their own purposes, which occurred during Saddam Hussein’s reign. During that time, Iraqi archaeology museums were used as propaganda centers to elevate Hussein’s status among his people. (Tierney, 2009)
The artifacts in question were stolen from Egypt. The burial mask of Ka Nefer Nefer, an ancient Egyptian noblewoman, was acquired by the St. Louis Art Museum in 1998, and has displayed it since that day. However, Zahi Hawass is laying claim to this mask as property of Egypt, as with the Rosetta Stone and other such artifacts. In the case of the burial mask, there is evidence that has surfaced that claims the mask was discovered by the researcher Ghoneim in 1952 and given to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. It was later sent to a Japanese exhibition in 1959, but did not arrive at its destination. Since then, it was unheard from until the St. Louis Art Museum’s acquisition of it, which raised suspicions that it had been stolen by the researchers of the museum. (“St. Louis”, 2008)
The museum claims that, before they purchased the mask, they sent inquiries out with the International Art Loss Registry in order to determine if it was on a list of stolen items, but there were no records or reports of the mask being stolen. At the same time, there are no specific records that provide a better idea whether or not the mask was stolen, or the method by which it left Egypt, or how it was stolen. The ultimate answer to this time gap remains unanswered, and as such, there is no definitive claim that can be made as to the status of the Ka Nefer Nefer mask. (“St. Louis”, 2008)
Ancient artifacts belong to the country from which they are found. As part of the history of a particular area, a piece of cultural property, such as an artifact, carries a unique significance to the country of origin, regardless of ultimate ancestry of the peoples of the culture currently occupying that country. (Young, 2007) Zahi Hawass is a strong proponent of this counterargument, as evidenced by his claims that he will fight, and “go and tell the world that these countries have no right to these antiquities.” His pursuits of the Rosetta Stone, the Ka Nefer Nefer mask, and thousands of other antiquities, as part of his repatriation campaign, are part of a large-scale mission to bring artifacts back to the country where they were discovered, regardless of where they are currently. (Khalil, 2010)
According to Young, “the only claim a culture will have on the ownership of cultural property is founded on the value that the property has for members of the culture.” In the instance when a piece of cultural property carries a sufficient value for a specific culture, overriding that of other cultures, the cultural significance principle can be applied to ownership, allowing the country to rightfully possess the antiquity. Lacking that, objects of sufficient world value, such as historical artifacts in museums, carry a great enough importance to the world at large that they surpass individual ownership and must be placed in a setting optimized for public display, including museums. (Young, 2007)
As previously mentioned in the Young text, the lack of ownership attributed to a culture that does not directly descend from the culture that originally created the cultural property does not have a sovereign claim to it. According to the cultural significance principle, if the cultural item, regardless of true ancestry, carries a vastly higher cultural value for that country than any other, it has a right to claim the artifact for itself, and no larger obligation to display the artifact for peoples of other cultures to appreciate. (Young, 2007)
To conclude, there are several strong arguments on either side of the issue regarding the return of artifacts to their country of origin; in particular, the return of the Rosetta Stone and other such important historical artifacts to Egypt, where they were discovered. It is true that these objects did come from Egypt, and that they were found there in the first place. What’s more, there are claims that are yet to be disproved stating that some of the artifacts held in museums were wrongfully stolen from Egyptian museums. However, there is sufficient justification for the notion that artifacts that are not directly inherited from their original culture are turned over to nature, and as such the culture residing in that country has no specific sense of ownership toward that artifact. This is excepted in the instance of the cultural significance principle, where a piece of cultural property with significant value to that country alone justifies the claim of ownership. (Young, 2007)
In the case of artifacts of sufficient cultural importance to the world, they no longer become the property of a single country, instead falling under the stewardship of who will offer it for public display, complete with security and adequate methods for preservation. The cultural heritage provided by the presence and exhibition of objects of great antiquity and significance, such as the Rosetta Stone and other such artifacts, outweighs any sense of nationalism and sensationalism that is sought by representatives of its country of origin. Museums are protected under conditions of adverse possession to keep pieces of cultural property that they already possess, particularly if they serve a public and educationally significant purpose. (Tierney, 2009) As a result, museums should not acquiesce to Zahi Hawass’ demands for culturally important artifacts to be given back to Egypt, their country of origin, and instead keep them in their displays, as they currently do, and continue to showcase them for public exhibition in which all people can participate.
Doyle, M. (2009). Ownership by display: Adverse possession to determine ownership of cultural property. The George Washington International Law Review, 41(1), 269-297. Retrieved January 24, 2011, from ABI/INFORM Global. (Document ID: 2163916111).
Khalil, A. (2010, November 11). Egypt hunts ancient artifacts: New york metropolitan museum says it will give back 19 items as archaeologist lobbies for returns. The Wall Street Journal (Eastern Ed.), p. A17.
Ratloff, J. (2009, March). Treaty on antiquities hinder access for museums. Science News, 175(7), 32. Retrieved January 29, 2011 from Research Library. (Document ID: 1670443781).
St. Louis museum proud of its ancient mask purchase, but Egypt calls it a steal. (2008,
November 24). New York Times. Retrieved January 15, 2011, from http://www.nytimes.com
Tierney, J. (2009, November 17). A Case in Antiquities For 'Finders Keepers' :[Science Desk]. New York Times (Late Edition (east Coast)), p. D.1. Retrieved January 24, 2011, from Banking Information Source. (Document ID: 1902127381).
Young, J. (2007). Cultures and cultural property. Journal of Applied Philosophy, (24)2. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-5930.2007.00359.x [Academic Search Complete]