Briefing

A modern history of museum lootings

Russia is only the latest country to be accused of illegally plundering priceless artifacts

On a recent episode of Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, the show's host explored the dark history of museums, and how many of the world's most beloved institutions have built collections of priceless artifacts ... many of which don't exactly belong to them. Oliver's story brought renewed scrutiny to a topic that has been in the headlines recently. From American museums being pressured into sending back stolen African heirlooms to countless accusations of looting and cultural destruction in Ukraine by the invading Russian forces, museums across the world are reaching an impasse with many of the items in their archives. As these museums continue to face anger for their historical actions, it is important to keep in mind the history behind this looting. Here's everything you need to know: 

How many museums are filled with stolen artifacts? 

UNESCO estimates that there are just over 100,000 museums in the world today. While certainly not all of these institutions are to blame for a problematic history, the fact remains that a significant number of museums have filled their halls with stolen goods. The bigger issue, though, lies with pinpointing just how many museums are the keepers of looted treasures — a task easier said than done. 

Per The Vergethe majority of stolen artifacts were pillaged by colonial powers in the last 300 years, and over time acquired by numerous former empires. While these artifacts can be found in museums all over the world, most of the well-known guilty institutions lie in the United States and Europe. As The Verge noted, though, there are no universal criteria for deciding which objects should be "repatriated," or returned to their countries of origin. 

Additional challenges come due to the age of many of these objects. Given that most of them were taken illegally, many artifacts in the world's museums do not have a clear chain of custody. A report from the Archeological Institute of America estimated that anywhere from 85 to 90 percent of artifacts "do not have a documented provenance." All of these factors can make it exceedingly difficult to figure out and keep track of these priceless treasures. 

What types of works have been looted?

Given the number of museums in the United States and Europe alone, there are countless artifacts and pieces of art that are said to have been stolen over the years. One of the most famous is a bust of the ancient Egyptian queen Nefertiti. Thought to have been made sometime in the 14th century, it fell into the hands of the Germans in 1912, and is currently on display in the Neues Museum in Berlin. Germany's capture of the bust has caused considerable anger in Egypt, and renewed efforts have been made by the Egyptians in the past few years to try and get the sculpture back. 

Another famous collection, known as the Benin Bronzes, is made up of thousands of antique sculptures that were looted from the British in modern-day Nigeria during the 1800s. The Bronzes were distributed to museums around the world, with the majority, unsurprisingly, being in the U.S. and Europe. New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art reportedly has almost 200 of them alone. 

Not even artifacts that used to be alive have been kept safe from plunderers. In 1898, a pair of rampaging, carnivorous lions known as the Tsavo Maneaters were killed in what is now modern Kenya. The man who killed them kept the two lions as floor rugs before eventually selling them to the Field Museum in Chicago, which had them stuffed and displayed, where they can still be seen today. However, the National Museums of Kenya have demanded that the lions be returned, as they consider them part of their national history. 

The top culprit: The British Museum 

Perhaps no single museum is as notoriously guilty of looting, though, as London's British Museum. The iconic institution houses hundreds of thousands of pieces of world history. Many of them, however, were acquired through nefarious means, and one human rights lawyer even told The Guardian that the museum had become "the world's largest recievers of stolen property." As such, there is a long list of countries asking for their heirlooms back. 

Among the most notable is the Rosetta Stone, an ancient slab written on behalf of an Egyptian king. The stone changed hands a number of times before being displayed by the British Museum starting in the 1800s. Often considered the museum's most famous attraction, the Egyptians have been calling for the Stone's return almost since it was taken. Egyptologist Heba Abd el Gawad told Vice News that the Stone "as it stands today, in the British Museum, it's a war spoil ... that's what it is in reality. It has never left Egypt legally. It's a trophy of empire."

The Greeks also have their fair share of gripes with the British Museum, mainly revolving around the Elgin Marbles, sculptures from the original Parthenon in Athens. A portion of the Marbles were removed from the Parthenon in the early 1800s by a British earl and sent back to Great Britain, where they were eventually sold to the British Museum. Despite continuing requests from the Greek government, the British have drawn a line in the sand over repatriating the Marbles, with Prime Minister Liz Truss saying that she didn't support a deal that would have allowed Greece and the U.K. to share the sculptures. 

Will these artifacts ever be returned? 

While many of these artifacts may never be returned, there is some good news on the horizon, as many museums have begun to repatriate heirlooms in recent years. This includes a number of the Benin Bronzes, with the Metropolitan Museum agreeing to return two of their prized collections to Nigeria. Another London museum, the Horniman Museum and Gardens, also returned 72 artifacts, including several Benin Bronzes, to the Nigerian government. 

Beyond these repatriations, more effort is being made to help people understand the history beyond looted artifacts. In New York, a new law recently passed requiring museums in the state to display signs alongside artworks "that are known to have been stolen or forcibly sold under Nazi rule," given that the Nazis notoriously plundered an estimated 650,000 pieces of art during World War II. 

However, there is still a ways to go to get lost heirlooms back to their rightful owners, and Forbes estimates that 90 percent of African material culture is still held in Western museums. With the renewed push for more cultural understanding, though, it seems that many of these priceless artifacts are slowly starting to find their way home. 

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