Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Return of Cultural Properties for Greece, Ethiopia, Korea

Professor Lee Geun-gwan just completed a two-year term as Chairperson of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee Promoting the Return of Cultural Properties to their Countries of Origin. He is indeed qualified to speak about the complex and emotionally-charged subject of cultural properties and the country in which they should be displayed, treasured, exist. Professor Lee discussed new trends in the international norms on the issue and examined several important cases involving Greece, France, Israel, Korea and a few other countries. He also reviewed the current Korean position on return of cultural properties and made suggestions on how the ROK could craft a mature and balanced approach. If he still held the chairperson position, he would not be free to express many of his insights; as former chairperson is once again allowed the scholastic voicing of his advice and opinions.

Cultural Nationalism vs Cultural Universalism

Cultural nationalism is a nationalism in which the nation is defined by the shared culture within it, and thus focuses on the national identity shaped by cultural traditions and by language, not by concepts of common ancestry or race.

Cultural universalism, also known as human universalism, is a belief that the culture has elements, patterns, traits, institutions that are common to all human cultures worldwide. In Donald Brown's book Human Universals (1991), he defines human universals as comprising "those features of culture, society, language, behavior and psyche for which there are no known exceptions". 

Professor Lee introduces these concepts as being fundamental to addressing the question of identity and state of belongingness to some/many of the treasures pilfered/borrowed/etc from other countries and permanently kept within their own. These concepts are what drive the sense of true ownership to the artifacts in question.


Possession and ownership of Jewish World War II artifacts

Adele Bloch-Bauer I - Source
The famous oil and gold on canvas painting of Adele Bloch-Bauer (1881-1925) was done by Gustav Klimt in about 1903/4. Adele Bloch-Bauer was an art-loving Vienesse salon lady and a patron and close friend of Gustav Klimt, and she is the only model painted twice by Klimt. Adele died of meningitis in 1925, and in her will requested her husband Friedrich to donate the Klimt painting to the Austrian State Gallery. In 1938 Friedrich as a Jew was forced to flee from the invading Nazis. He died in Zurich in 1945, bequeathing his estate to his nephew and nieces, among whom was Maria Altmann. In 2000 Maria sued Austria in a US court for the ownership of the Adele Bloch-Bauer I painting, and in 2006 was recognized as the rightful owner of the painting. She immediate sold it in August of the same year for $135 million (a record prize for a painting) to Ronald Lauder, son of Estee Lauder, who put it on display in the Neue Galerie in NYC.

Inheriting and immediately selling an artifact after contesting internationally for it based on cultural  ownership raises ethical questions on its true cultural value. As Wikipedia puts it, this return of a cultural item transforms "a story of justice and redemption after the Holocaust" into "yet another tale of crazy, intoxicating market".

GREECE - The Elgin / Parthenon Marbles

Known as the Elgin Marbles in the United Kingdom and marketed as such to the world, the Greeks are denigrated by the name and refer to them as the Parthenon Marbles. The Parthenon Marbles were originally part of the temple of Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis of Athens. Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, claimed their ownership in 1801 via a controversial permit from the Sublime Porto, which then ruled Greece. He transported them to Britain, and in 1816 sold them to the British Museum where they are still housed. The name Elgin Marbles was applied to them as per the Earl of Elgin who brought them to England; however, the name Elgin has connotations of looting and negativism so the Greeks refer to them as the Parthenon Marbles to reference their greatness and cultural connection.

Elgin Marbles aka Parthenon Marbles in part
In the 1830s Greece won its independence from the Ottoman Empire and has since been wanting the Marbles returned to their home country. Demands for repatriation of the Marbles have been ignored. In the 1930s the Greeks were highly enraged at the Brits for using damaging chemicals on their Parthenon Marbles when trying to clean them. The Greeks had a case in demanding their return since the holding country was not properly caring for the "borrowed" items. 

One of the reasons Britain refuses to return the Parthenon Marbles is because there was no museum to showcase the Marbles. Greece built a museum expressly for housing the Marbles. The Marbles still have not been returned, and this case of cultural property ownership has become a world famous controversial issue. 

In 2014, UNESCO offered to mediate between Greece and the UK, but was turned down by the UK. From December 6, 2014 through January 18, 2015 the British Museum loaned a river-god figure of the Marbles to the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. This was the first time the British Museum lent any of the Marbles and this action caused considerable controversy.

(Wikipedia) "In 2015 the Greek government said that it would no longer pursue legal actions to regain possessions of the Marbles, but it would instead focus on a "diplomatic and political approach". 

ETHIOPIA - Obelisk of Axum

Aksum Obelisk, Tigray Region, Ethiopia
 (aka Rome Stele)
The Obelisk of Axum is 1700 years old, is 24 meters (79 feet) tall, and weighs 160 tones. It is one of the most famous obelisks of Ethiopia and is thought to have been carved and erected during the 4th century A.D. in the Kingdom of Aksum, an ancient Ethiopian civilization. An obelisk or stele is a burial marker for someone of greatness (royalty or nobility based on the height, style, intricacy and pattern, etc) and hundreds of steles exist in "stelae fields" in Ethiopia. The Obelisk of Axum was decorated with two false doors and what appears to be decorative windows on all sides. Like others in the region it had fallen due to seismic activity, military invasions, and general decay. 

When Italian soldiers following the Italian conquest of Ethiopia in 1935 found the Obelisk, it had collapsed and broken into five pieces. As a symbol of birth of the "new Roman Empire", it was transported to Italy and erected in Rome. In a 1947 agreement, Italy agreed to return the stele to Ethiopia, but little action was taken for 50 years because of technical difficulties, the cost of transport and reconstruction which the Italian government said they did not have, and other logistics. Finally through fund-raising, the stele was transported back to Ethiopia and reassembled by a UNESCO team in 2008.

SOUTH KOREA - "Uigwe" or "Royal Protocols"

Front cover of the Odaesan archive
copy of the Uigwe for the funeral of
Empress Myeongsong
Uigwe is the generic name for a vast collection of approximately 3,895 books recording in detail royal rituals and ceremonies of the Joseon Dynasty of the Koreas. Uigwe loosely translates as "book of state rites" or more conceptually correct as "Royal Protocols". This vast collection of state records was inscribed in UNESCO's Memory of the World Programme in 2007.

In 1782 the Oegyujanggak Library was built in the ancient royal palace on Ganghwa Island to accommodate the overflow of books from the main Gyujanggak Library at Changdeokgung Palace in Seoul. In 1866, French expeditionary forces came from China to seek explanations concerning a number of executions of French Catholic missionaries in Korea. Unable to gain access to authorities, the French attacked Ganghwa Island and seized the royal books and a vast number of other artifacts. In 1975, a Korean scholar Park Byeong-sen discovered the Uigwe while working as a librarian.

The books were requested for return in 1992. In 1993 one book was returned with the promised to return the remaining collection. However, since French law prohibits nationals assets to be transferred abroad, South Korea tried to retrieve the documents through a permanent lease. After a series of long disputes and negotiations, in 2011 297 volumes of 191 different Uigwes were returned to South Korea on a five-year renewable loan basis. There is little doubt in many scholars minds that the Uigwe will permanently remain in their country of origin and the "lease" is just a semantic for their permanent return.

Similarly in 1922, during the Japanese colonial period, Japan also took many of the Uigwe and other relics to the University of Tokyo. In 2010, Japan released five copies to mark the centenary of Japan's annexation of Korean and to affirm peaceful relations between the two countries. 1,200 volumes including 150 Uigwe were permanently returned in 2011.

SOUTH KOREA - Buddha of the Kannon-ji

The buddhas stolen from the Kannon-ji temple in Tsushima city.
The Kannon Buddha is on the right.
In 2012, a Bodhisattva Kannon (or Guanyin) statue was stolen from the Kannon-ji temple in Tsushima city, Nagasaki by a Korean man. There is little dispute that the Buddha is of Korean origin, but the question remains how the Japanese temple secured the Buddha and was it through legitimate means. On February 26, 2013 the Daejeon district court in Korea gave a provisional ruling stating that until the temple could prove that the statue was acquired honestly, the Korean government would not return it to the Japanese. This provisional ruling is causing diplomatic friction between the two countries, particularly as the Buddha is a statue of "Kannon Observing the Cries of the World" and is designated a cultural treasure of Nagasaki Prefecture. The man stealing the Buddha and other statues was arrested by Korean police, but following his arrest a group of citizens insisted that the Buddha was made at Pusok-sa temple in South Chuncheong Province, and accordingly filed an action requesting its return to the temple. The district court ruling is not absolute, and a review is taking place to determine if the judgement is valid under international law.


CHINA - 12 zodiac bronze statues looted from the Old Summer Palace

tap to enlarge - source
In 1860 during the Second Opium War, British and French expeditionary forces looted the treasures of the Old Summer Palace, China. Among the looted treasures were the highly admired 12 bronze Chinese zodiac statues of the water clock fountain that would spout water to tell the time. In recent years there have been many attempts to repatriate Chinese art and cultural artifacts. However, only seven of the treasured 12 zodiac icons have been recovered, five of them bought at auction. The two most recent acquisitions, the rat and the rabbit, were acquired via a controversial auction in 2009 in which the buyer, a wealthy Chinese man, won the auction then refused to pay. They were purchased for $40 million and donated to the Chinese government in 2013. There are yet five more needing to repatriated to their home country.

NEW ZEALAND - repatriation of human remains

France recently returned indigenous cultural artifacts to New Zealand. The Karanga Aotearoa Repatriation Programme, established in partnership between Maori and the New Zealand government in 2003 and with the passing of a repatriation of human remain laws in Europe (2007) has since been able to have over 350 Maori and Moriori ancestral remains repatriated to Aoteroa New Zealand.

IRAQ - pillage of Baghdad National Museum

In 2003 the Baghdad National Museum was pillaged during an invasion. More than 170,000 items were said to have been pillaged, smashed, confiscated, a large portion of Iraq's tangible culture. In 2006 some cultural items were gathered, returned or retrieved from hiding and the museum was reopened. In 2015, due to international efforts the museum was able to recover in part some of the ancient artifacts. However, much of the culture has been permanently lost or is still needing to be repatriated.


The issue of return was forcefully raised and pursued in the 1970s, known as the "age of decolonization", which lead to the establishment of the ICPRCP (Inter-governmental Committee Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin). 

Arguments for the return of cultural artifacts: 
  • Cultural objects achieve their maximum value and significance in their "original context"
  • Right of cultural self-determination (right to cultural self-identity)
  • Effective ways to address the "unfortunate past" of colonization

Arguments against the return of cultural artifacts:
  • Cultural objects in question have been "naturalized" or assumed a "universal" significance (the idea of the "universal museum")
  • In terms of inter-temporal law, the transfer of the objects was, at least technically, "legal"
  • Concern of the "domino effect"

Other hurdles:
  • The veneer of technical legality (purchase, exchange, donation, etc)
  • Passage of long time
  • Rule of bona fide purchase
  • Weak negotiation power of the "victim states"


Extent of claims - not all cultural property displaced during colonial domination should be the objects of return claims

Criteria for return claims:
  • Cultural objects with substantial significance for the cultural identity of former colonies
  • Heightened illegality involved in the taking of the cultural property
  • Utilization of the cultural property in a humiliating manner
  • Conspicuous asymmetry in terms of context-appropriateness


Heightened interest in the issue in Korean society
  • recent examples of repatriation
  • keen interest in the issue on the part of the Korean government and civil society as represented by various NGOs
Establishment of the "Overseas Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation" (July 2012) 
Need for an epistemological equilibrium between cultural nationalism and cultural internationalism/universalism
  • It is expected that Korea will contribute to the articulation of an inter-subjective discourse that duly takes account of the sufferings inflicted on the colonized peoples and, at the same time, orients itself to future cooperation.


Prof. Lee received an LL.B. from Seoul National University, an LL.M from Georgetown University, and a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge. He teaches Public International Law, History and Theory of International Law, and the Law of the Sea at Seoul National University. In the summer of 2010 he served as Director of Studies at the Hague Academy of International Law, and he previously taught at the ROK Naval Academy, the Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Tokyo, and the School of Law at the University of Hawaii.

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