Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Two Repatriation Successes

I can happily report that two recent legal efforts to repatriate important items of cultural heritage, long held outside of their place of origin, have both ended in success. The first case (also here) conserns the return of a gold bead in the shape of a screaming monkey with turquoise eyes belonging to the Moche culture, which flourished along the northern Peruvian coast from c. 100BC-800AD (see above left). The pendant is known to have been illegally looted from an unidentified tomb (suggested by one of Peru's most preeminent archaeologists, Dr. Walter Alva, to stylistically affiliate with funerary objects from the elite tombs of Sipan, in the northern Lambayeque valley) in 1987. For decades, archaeological sites large and small have been targeted by huaqueros (tomb robbers) in this region, but transnational cooperation between Universities, museums, the more consciencous private dealers, and governments themselves have begun to turn the tide.

The case for repatriation began when Dr. Alva recognized the artifact in the Palace of the Governors History Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico. As noted in the article, artifacts similar to this pendant have likely been looted from smaller sites within the Sipan sphere of influence, making the removal of this item from the private antiquities market all the more unusual, especially given the high prices fetched for other golden Moche artifacts on the black market or in federal stings. The bead was originally part of the Bourne collection, dubbed by journalist Roger Atwood as "the finest small collection of pre-Colombian art anywhere," but obvious care seems to have been given in its curation, and museum authorities commendably agreed that this artifact more appropriately belongs in Peru so that, in the words of Director Frances Levine "it can be better used to help museums in Peru tell their own stories."

The second case involves the recovery of 20 severed Maori heads (!) by New Zealand after almost two centuries of storage in museums. The repatriation ceremony occurred at the Musee du Quai Branley, Paris, with relevant governmental authorities, New Zealand embassadors, and anthropologists/historians from the Te Papa museum, Wellington. According to the article, 200 heads have been returned from a total of 14 countries (demonstrating the wide distribution these "memento mori" had during the Colonial period), but several others "might remain in private collections."

What struck me specifically about this case is both that a special law had to be passed to finalize this specific repatriation (why?), and that French authorities "worried that this might set a worrying precedent for other artefacts such as Egyptian mummies and the bones of early Christian martyrs." Given that many of the artefacts taken during colonial expeditions have been languishing in museum storage for as long if not longer than the Maori heads discussed above, perhaps success stories such as the above WILL provide the incentive needed for small European museums to assess their old collections, record all that can be recorded from such human remains, and then take the lead in repatriation instead of waiting for legal action. Fair's fair...


  1. If a new law was required before the repatriation could be effected,it probably means that in the absence of a law authorizing such an action,the museums could not simply repatriate the items. In France, human remains and other artefacts are regarded as State property and a special procedure must be followed,even by small or local museums.

  2. You'd hope that countries with important repatriation cases already carried out in favour of the claimant cultures/countries, and several other collections known to be held in their museums, would eventually pass a nation-wide law to streamline the process, the paperwork required etc. This could also ensure some level of standardization regarding what information/data can be collected from a Colonial-era assemblage of human remains in advance of repatriation so that researchers consulting databases could access the same comparative information about any collection.