For decades, the issue of cultural property illegally removed from its original context has fuelled global debate, which has heated up since public opinion turned the spotlight on prestigious Western collections holding treasures from countries that now claim ownership. Alexander Herman gives us a wide-ranging and up-to-date overview of the most controversial cases, such as the ongoing dispute over the Parthenon marbles or the partial repatriation of the Benin bronzes, not to mention the objects stolen from the Summer Palace in Beijing and paintings requisitioned by the Nazis.
Restitution is more complex than it seems, not only because it forces us to come to terms with the abuses perpetrated by our forebears, but also because applying a contemporary idea of justice to instances of the past can have an unforeseen cost. It is now deemed unacceptable for symbols of a religious cult wrested from indigenous communities to be on display in the museums of the “predators”. But in many cases these are artifacts that have been part of their collections for centuries; indeed, some of them have acquired an enormous cultural, and even financial value for the institutions that house them, and they may be unwilling to give them up. While deliberating on how restitutions can be negotiated, this volume also questions the paradigm shift we have entered into: our obsession with rectifying past injustices could have an irreversible impact on the cultural sector for years to come.