Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 November 2019

'British Museum is the world’s largest receiver of stolen property,' claims top barrister

Geoffrey Robertson QC urged the London landmark to return 'pilfered' cultural treasures to their rightful owners

The British Museum has been likened to a criminal operation by one of Britain's most famed barristers, who called the London institution the "world’s largest receiver of stolen property".

Geoffrey Robertson QC, a human rights barrister and author, criticised the landmark for showcasing objects taken from “subjugated peoples” by “conquerors or colonial masters”.

We cannot right historical wrongs – but we can no longer, without shame, profit from them

Robertson made the blistering comments in his new book, Who Owns History? Elgin’s Loot and the Case for Returning Plundered Treasure, which was released today.

“The trustees of the British Museum have become the world’s largest receivers of stolen property, and the great majority of their loot is not even on public display," he wrote, according to The Guardian.

Robertson used examples, such as the Elgin Marbles, Hoa Hakananai’a and the Benin bronzes, and "other pilfered cultural property", denouncing the museum for allowing unaffiliated guides to host unofficial “stolen goods tour”.

“That these rebel itineraries are allowed is a tribute to the tolerance of this great institution, which would be even greater if it washed its hands of the blood and returned Elgin’s loot,” Robertson said.

London's British Museum has been criticised for housing 'stolen' artefacts in a new book by Geoffrey Robertson. Getty Images
London's British Museum has been criticised for housing 'stolen' artefacts in a new book by Geoffrey Robertson. Getty Images

The Elgin Marbles are a collection of Classical Greek sculptures, taken from Athens by Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin, in the in the early 1800s; Greece has requested these artworks be returned.

However, Lord Elgin, the museum has previously insisted, was “acting with the full knowledge and permission of the Ottoman authorities".

The Hoa Hakananai’a is a statue from Easter Island and the Benin bronzes comprise more than 1,000 metal plaques and sculptures from modern-day Nigeria; both are wanted returned by their homelands.

Robertson condemned the Louvre in Paris and the Metropolitan in New York, as well as the British Museum, for "locking up the precious legacy of other lands, stolen from their people by wars of aggression, theft and duplicity”.

The QC, who previously penned a report on the repatriation of the Elgin Marbles with Amal Clooney and professor Norman Palmer, instead urged these institutions return artefacts.

His words echoed the sentiment of a report commissioned last year by French President Emmanuel Macron, which called for museums in France to return artworks removed from African nations during the country’s own colonial period.

“Politicians may make more or less sincere apologies for the crimes of their former empires, but the only way now available to redress them is to return the spoils of the rape of Egypt and China and the destruction of African and Asian and South American societies,” Robertson wrote in his new book. “We cannot right historical wrongs – but we can no longer, without shame, profit from them.”

Among the British Museum's still-displayed artefacts are Egypt’s Rosetta Stone, which Tarek Tawfik, director of Cairo’s Grand Egyptian Museum, asked to be returned last year.

A close up of the Rosetta stone The Rosetta Stone: this ancient slab of granodiorite was discovered by French troops in 1799 following Napoleon Bonaparte’s bloody invasion of Egypt a year earlier. But after France’s defeat to the British in 1801, the stone fell into UK hands. For over 200 years, the 196 BC-inscribed artefact, which was used to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs, has been exhibited at the British Museum.
The Rosetta Stone is currently exhibited at the British Museum. Getty Images

Earlier this year, a representative for the British Museum told The National that “internationally, the museum works extensively in partnership with museums across the globe to consider, understand and reflect … complicated shared histories”.

“We lend many thousands of objects all over the world. For example, with regard to our work in Africa, we have committed to lending objects from the collection on a rotating basis to the planned new Royal Museum Benin in Benin City, within a three-year timeframe.”

The museum, however, did help repatriate looted ancient treasures from Iraq and Afghanistan in July, sending back Gandharan sculptures illegally exported to Britain in 2002, as well as 154 Mesopotamian texts written on clay that were seized on entry to the UK in 2011.

The British Museum is also working with antiquities authorities, collectors, dealers and law enforcement agencies to identify and return trafficked objects to Egypt and Sudan. The scheme has identified almost 700 illicit artefacts looted and trafficked from the two countries over the past year, the museum revealed this summer.

Updated: November 5, 2019 05:21 PM

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