Stolen Property or Finders Keepers

By Dede Tisone-Bartels


" What a society deems important is enshrined in its art"


The end of imperialism and the new emphasis on international cooperation after World War II has expressed itself in surprising ways. As nations became independent of their former colonial owners, a sense of national identity grew and with it a strong sense of culture. People began to view their historic art and artifacts as improtant symbols of this culture that had been lost over the centuries.

The ownership of many priceless artworks has become questionable because of how each was acquired. Some were gotten through outright theft,others were the spoils of war. Some were taken in the process of colonization,some as bounty and others by treasure hunters.

You will become investigators and reporters looking into the matter of the ownership of some of the world's greatest art.. After your investigations you will present a case which will help determine the legal and ethical title of the current owners of these treasures.

Museums and the Spoils of War

New York Times Sec. 4,
P. 3, Sunday March 12, 1995
by Alan Riding

Even before the Romans took their pick of Greek statues, art was treated as war booty. Throughout Europe's turbulent history, art works regularly changed hands through armed conflict or political domination. And from the 19th century, the Europeans began bringing Asian, African and Latin American treasures into their museums -- to save them, it was claimed, from destruction. Increasingly, however, "victim" countries are refusing to view history as a closed book. Greece has long demanded the return of the Elgin Marbles, the 253 sculptures from the Parthenon that are in the British Museum. Turkey, China, Cambodia, Nigeria, Mali and Bangladesh say their cultural heritage was ransacked. Mexicans lament that the feathered headdress of the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma is in a Vienna museum. "For Turkey, the point of departure is that pieces should be returned to their country of origin," said Ahmed Ulker, a Turkish diplomat at Unesco, the United Nations cultural body that promotes restitution of unique art treasures. "Of course, we don't want to empty Western museums. But, as a matter of principle, art works exported illegally should be returned." ....


You will be divided into small groups. Each group will be asked to research an individual case in which an artifact or work of art was removed from it's origional owner or country of origon. Each person in the group will become a professional investigator and will have separate tasks to complete. When each individual has completed his or her part of the work, the group will prepare a final presentation to the "Court of Public Opinion," which will decide the fate of this work. Will it stay with the present owner, or will it be returned to its country of origin? You will be evaluating the effects of historical values and actions in todays world. You must also consider the long term impact on a transfer of ownership on the art or artifacts preservation for future generations.

Continue to the Student Page