The restitution debate: Part 2 – Issues and Strategies

Mask of King Tut, Egypt Museum
Mask of King Tut, Egypt Museum (Photo credit: Roland Unger - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Most major restitution negotiations take place on a state-to-state basis, but it is not always obvious how the cultural property rights involved align with those states. Many Taíno objects in North American and European museums came from Hispaniola, for instance, which is today the location of two states with a significant history of political and racial antagonism between them, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Who should such objects be returned to then, if their exact provenance on the island cannot be determined?

The Taíno Revival Movement is further complicating this matter, as Taíno activist groups now also claim cultural property rights. Last year, there was a petition against the auction of a private collection of Taíno artifacts (some of them furthermore of disputed authenticity) at Christie’s, which attracted more than 50,000 signatures. The auction nonetheless went ahead and realized 3,062,750 Euros. The petition was on behalf of “We, the Taíno” but the question arises who can legitimately speak and furthermore hold cultural property on behalf of the Taíno, in the absence of clear and binding legal definitions and standards such as those that definitions membership of indigenous nations in the USA and Canada. 

Another question is whether the actual return of cultural objects that were taken during the colonial period is always the best solution. One of the arguments against restitution used by the major western museums is that they hold such cultural treasures on behalf of humankind, as part of the shared cultural heritage of humanity. The footfall at such museums is much larger than at most museums in postcolonial societies (some 6 million per year in the case of the Louvre), which results in more significant and diverse access to their collections and exhibitions. That is an issue that cannot be discounted entirely as the question as the cultural rights of postcolonial diasporas who live in those urban centres should also be considered.

The subtext of such arguments is, however, that such museums believe that they are the only ones equipped to take on this “universal” responsibility. In all fairness, museums in postcolonial societies are not always well-managed or adequately funded, but that is rapidly changing, as new, state-of-the-art museums are, for instance, being erected in various parts of Africa. It needs to be recognized, also, that museums in Europe and North America are themselves not immune to the vagaries of war and uprising: many European museums were, after all, quite easily looted by the Nazis, and the first, and thankfully contained, incident of terrorism affecting a museum was a machete attack at the Louvre in Paris in 2017 (museums, because of their symbolic value and high footfall, are in fact at greater risk for such attacks).

There have been panicky responses that established European museums, such as the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, which holds most of the 80,000 objects reviewed in the Macron report, will be emptied out. Most restitution requests are, as the report’s authors Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy, have pointed out, not wholesale but pertain to specific art works that are deemed particularly important and, given their own worth and the way they were taken, of high symbolic value. For other objects, there are some interesting alternative forms of reparation that could also be explored, including payment in compensation for items that were inappropriately taken, legal transfer of ownership whereby the objects remain where they are but are leased to those museums by their rightful owners, the payment of reproduction royalties and touring exhibition fees, and even exchanges for European and North American art works of equal cultural importance. 



Egypt is an interesting case, as it owns a significant number of its ancient historical artifacts, such as the treasures from the fabled tomb of Tutankhamen. While these treasures will now have a permanent home in the new Grand Egyptian Museum in Gizeh, Egyptian museum authorities had in recent years organized a very successful traveling exhibition with selections from the treasures, the second of its kind, and involving significant loan fees. Egypt has also been very strategic with its restitution requests, demanding the return of major objects such as the Rosetta Stone and the famous bust of Nefertiti, but it maintains collegial, collaborative relations with museums elsewhere that hold Egyptian objects. This has resulted in some voluntary restitutions. In 2002, for instance, the Carlos Museum at Emory University in Atlanta, which has impressive Egyptian holdings, volunteered the return of a royal mummy believed to be pharaoh Ramesses I, the founder of the 19th dynasty. The mummy was part of a collection the Carlos Museum had acquired in 1999 from the Niagara Falls Museum, which had itself acquired the mummy in the 1860s through an Egyptian art broker.

The National Museum of Fine Arts in Cuba owns some 114 Egyptian art works and artifacts, which is known as the Collection of the Earl of Lagunillas, after the collector Joaquín Gumà Herrera who in 1955 donated his Egyptian collection to the Cuban state. This donation represents the bulk of the Cuban museum’s Egyptian collection, which is considered the best of its kind in Latin America. The Earl of Lagunillas had acquired his collections through the specialist art and antiquities art market and I would not be surprised if some of his acquisitions did not quite meet today’s standards for the trade in cultural property. I am not aware of any restitution requests from Egypt, however, and Cuba received a sarcophagus as a donation from Egypt in 1974, which can be read as a fiat for its National Museum’s Egyptian collection, of which this donation is now a part.

The broader point with the Egyptian collection in Cuba is, however, that the Caribbean is not entirely immune to restitution requests and that, in our rapidly changing world, there should be greater awareness of its implications. Some of the holdings of Cuba’s art museums were forcibly nationalized from major private collections after the Revolution, which is a source of contention in the Cuban diaspora. Other historical wrongs were arguably righted with these nationalizations, but there have been some legal challenges recently when some such works were offered for sale at major international auction houses, which is of course much harder to defend.

The Caribbean also needs to get its house in order with how cultural property is traded and collected within the region. Art museums, for instance, need to make a greater effort to ensure that the provenance of art works they acquire on the secondary market, or by donation, is appropriately documented, and does not include works that were inappropriately or unethically acquired — some Caribbean museums have been lax with provenance matters and some of the proverbial chickens may eventually come home to roost about acquisitions that were not above board.

Dr Veerle Poupeye is an art historian specialized in art from the Caribbean. She lectures at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts in Kingston, Jamaica, and works as an independent curator, writer, researcher, and cultural consultant. Her personal blog can be found at

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