x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Homelands seek to reclaim art gone astray

Many modern battles are raging over centuries-old fruits of conflict displayed in museums far from their home.

According to the Book of Chronicles in the Bible's Old Testament, "King Shishak of Egypt attacked Jerusalem and took away the treasures of the Lord's temple and of the royal palace. He took everything, including the gold shields that Solomon had made."

Seizing the artworks of a country or a people has always been used as a politically motivated cultural rape in times of conflict. Thus, artworks of disputed ownership have always been in the news. Just last week Germany again rejected Egypt's demand to return its 3,350-year-old bust of Nefertiti, and there have been battles over ancient Etruscan artwork and Aztec artefacts, not to mention the Elgin Marbles, a collection of classical Greek marble sculptures, inscriptions and architectural artefacts that were part of the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis of Athens. They were brought to Britain by Lord Elgin in the early 1800s, remain in the British Museum and look likely to stay there.

The Nazis infamously looted art as a matter of course and Hermann Göring, head of the Luftwaffe, created a huge private collection of artefacts stolen from Jews and other victims of genocide. The Soviet Red Army then proceeded to plunder German artworks, many of which have ended up in public museums, private collections and, allegedly, in secret depots in Russia and Poland. The stolen artworks include sculptures by Nicola Pisano, reliefs by Donatello, Gothic Madonnas and paintings by Botticelli and Van Dyck.

The returning of artworks stolen by Nazis to the descendants of their original owners has been almost as controversial as their initial seizure. Austria's museums are desolate following various court rulings. One of the most expensive art sales of all time, that of Gustav Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I for $135 million (Dh496m) in 2006, followed a court ruling that the painting be removed from the Belvedere museum in Vienna and restored to the American heirs of the original owner.

More recently, looting of art and antiquities has been going on in Afghanistan and Iraq, some of it in the guise of rescuing the pieces from destruction. The Taliban, of course, dynamited the sixth-century Buddhas of Bamiyan among countless other ancient works of Afghan art that hadn't already been looted or hidden by the Soviets. An amazing 22,513 items from the Kabul museum were found in 2004, hidden in crates by the Soviets at the end of their occupation. These included examples of Bactrian gold and the Bagram Ivories.

In Iraq, British and American troops have been criticised for not protecting the National Museum and National Library in Baghdad and were accused of standing by while the looting of artefacts from civilisation's first cities took place. One of the most valuable artefacts, a headless stone statue of the Sumerian king Entemena of Lagash, was recovered in the United States. Thousands of smaller pieces have now been returned by other countries.

For its part, Italy is keen to make clear that its public art stays at home. Under Italian law, any ancient artefact found on Italian territory belongs to the state. In 2008 Rome hosted an exhibition called Homecomings,made up entirely of Roman, Etruscan and Greek antiquities recovered by the Italian government from museums and individuals after being plundered and sold by tomboroli (tomb raiders).

Though not accused of any wrongdoing, the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles ended up returning 40 works of art to Italy, including one of its most precious, a fifth-century BC statue of Aphrodite.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2006 returned Italian treasures from its collection, including the Euphronios krater - dug up, according to court records, near Cerveteri in 1971 - and viewed as one of the finest examples of Greek vase painting.