A Look at Museum Repatriation in 2024

The importance of provenance research is growing, but institutions face several thorny issues when it comes to determining provenance and repatriating art and artifacts.

Two people kneel at a box containing a statue
A late 10th–early 11th Century bronze sculpture of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara is prepared for repatriation to the Kingdom of Cambodia. Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Another day, another object from a museum’s permanent collection leaving that collection to return to from whence it was taken. In a recent case, that object is a carved wood column, part of the side of a doorframe that dates to the 12th Century and was illegally removed from the Phanom Rung shrine to the Hindu god Shiva in northeast Thailand. Returning the pilaster fragment is the Art Institute of Chicago, where it had been on long-term loan since 1996 and officially entered the museum’s permanent collection in 2017. The process of returning the object to Thailand began on June 18th. The museum has some familiarity with the Phanom Rung shrine, having previously returned another looted object—the Vishnu lintel—to the same temple in 1988. That lintel was restored to the structure, and presumably the pilaster will be as well.

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Righting a historical wrong is a good thing, although the process of repatriating cultural property that’s been wrongly removed from a nation in the developing world, whether by looting or illegal excavation or accidental (or intentional) misidentification on import and export documents, can take months or even years and is accomplished one object at a time. One issue is that the history of what happened to and with these objects is so often obscured—with details including their original location and owners or stewards being sometimes near impossible to determine. How an artifact ended up in an institution’s permanent collection can be equally tough to figure out. It is almost always the case that such items have passed through various hands, including dealers, auctioneers, private buyers and other museums. It is often only when an object is written about or shown, perhaps in an auction catalogue or museum periodical, that someone from its country of origin will make a claim.

It is unknown when the 36.5×12×7.25-inch pilaster was pried off the door and somehow came into the possession of some Asian antiquities dealer. What we do know is that a private U.S. dealer sold it in 1966 to a private collector who made a long-term loan of it to the Art Institute in 1996—eventually donating it twenty-one years later. Up until last year, curators at the museum assumed that it was Cambodian. The Art Institute’s Asian Art Department oversees art and artifacts from many different regions, but specific to Southeast Asia, there are approximately 350 objects in the permanent collection. According to Sarah Guernsey, deputy director and senior vice president for curatorial affairs at the institution, the Art Institute of Chicago hired a specialist in art from the Khmer region, an area that covers what is now Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, in 2023. That specialist, Nicolas Revire, Postdoctoral Fellow in Arts of Asia and Curatorial Documentation and Research, researched the object and “was able to identify the iconography and style as more likely Thai than Cambodian, and ultimately identified it as originating at the Phanom Rung Temple in Thailand.”

She told Observer that the research on the pilaster took between six and eight months and included a trip by Revire to Thailand to visit the temple to confirm his findings. After that, museum officials contacted the Thai government “to make them aware of this object and return the pilaster to its place of origin.”

The growing importance of provenance research

Finding out where the objects in museums’ permanent collections actually came from, known as Provenance research, which involves figuring out how the objects in museums’ permanent collections actually got there, has become increasingly important at U.S. institutions. One driver has been the focus on what is often referred to as Holocaust art—works confiscated by the Nazis from mostly Jewish collectors and dealers in Germany and countries conquered by their armies that were then sold by dealers and auctioneers (in Europe and the U.S.) to European and American collectors and institutions. In 2001, the American Alliance of Museums, along with the International Council of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors, issued a directive to the museum community that “museums should strive to… identify all objects in their collections that were created before 1946 and acquired by the museum after 1932, that underwent a change of ownership between 1932 and 1946, and that were or might reasonably be thought to have been in continental Europe between those dates.” Additionally, museums were advised to make that information publicly available and to make provenance research a regular part of their curatorial activities.

SEE ALSO: How Museums Acquire Antiquities Is Changing

Since 2001, a growing number of private, municipal and college museums have established provenance research positions or whole departments, including Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the Denver Art Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the North Carolina Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, Worcester Art Museum and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Asian Art, as well as the museums at Cornell, Princeton and Yale universities.

The number of people involved in provenance research at institutions ranges widely. Some researchers have other principal jobs at their museums but will take time off to pursue a provenance investigation, while other institutions have staffers for whom that is their only job. At the Art Institute of Chicago, for example, there are three dedicated provenance researchers who may be assisted by other departmental curators when asked. At the MFA Boston, there is only one, Victoria Reed, who told Observer that she works “with a curatorial research associate, who works three full days per week. We are our own department. We occasionally work with graduate interns.” Being a small department and short-handed has not made the work unproductive, and Reed noted that in the past decade, twenty-two objects from the MFA’s permanent collection have been repatriated: eight to Nigeria, nine to Italy, two to Mali and three to Turkey.

Of those twenty-two instances of repatriation, Reed said that half were initiated by a claim (from a foreign government or New York City’s district attorney’s office’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit), while the others came through “information passed along by a scholar or colleague” or through the museum’s own research. The repatriations were all of works from archaeological looting, wartime looting, thefts from other cultural institutions or private homes and sales made under duress. Also, of the claims, one was decided in a court of law, two involved the New York City District Attorney filing a criminal complaint and the remaining ten were resolved directly by the museum and the claimants.

Slowing the process considerably at times is the fact that museums often need to be compelled by the courts to return objects. The Art Institute of Chicago, for instance, has been fighting against claims to return a 1916 painting by Egon Schiele, Russian War Prisoner, to the heirs of Franz Friedrich “Fritz” Grünbaum (1880–1941), an Austrian Jewish cabaret artist and songwriter whose art collection was looted by Nazis before he was murdered in the Holocaust. Last year, the museum was able to beat back claims that the artwork was stolen property in a civil court decision arising from a lawsuit filed by the heirs, but a criminal complaint brought by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office on the same issue has yet to be resolved.

Calls for a presumably looted object to be repatriated only sometimes result in the item being returned. According to a spokesperson for the Washington, D.C.-based American Alliance of Museums, a museum’s own provenance research efforts would have to come to the conclusion that the object had been looted and that there is a single, rightful owner. However, “repatriation discussions can lead to more meaningful or deeper relationships with descendant communities or source countries and loans of related objects may result,” she told Observer. In 2021, for example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art returned three bronze plaques that had been looted in 1897 by British troops from the Kingdom of Benin, which is now part of Nigeria, and the negotiations between the museum and the Nigerian government resulted in an agreement allowing the loan of other pieces from the African nation to the Met.

A carved column on a wooden platform
The 12th-century pilaster that was repatriated by the Art Institute of Chicago. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

Notable repatriations of 2024

The past decade has seen numerous instances of objects in museums sent back to the countries from which they had been removed illegally or, in the case of Holocaust art, to the families of victims of Nazi confiscation of cultural property. This year, the Cleveland Museum of Art agreed to send back to Libya a 2,200-year-old Ptolemaic statue that had been taken out of the African country in the Second World War during the British occupation, passing through various hands until it entered the collection of a New York City couple who donated the piece to the Cleveland museum. Earlier in the year, approximately 600 objects, including ancient bronze statues, gold coins, mosaics and manuscripts, that had been deemed looted from Italy were returned to that country’s Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage by Matthew Bogdanos, the head of the antiquities trafficking unit of the New York district attorney’s office and members of the U.S. Homeland Security Investigations department who had tracked down these items in private and institutional collections in the U.S.

Among other instances of repatriation is an ancient marble sculpture returned to Greece after being illegally excavated and sold to a New York City antiquities dealer who donated the object to the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University in Atlanta. The Getty Museum returned to Turkey an ancient Roman statuary head that was illegally excavated and taken out of the country at some point in the 1960s. A looted Sumerian sculpture dating from the 3rd millennium BC was sent back to Iraq by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it had been part of the permanent collection since 1955. And the Met announced just yesterday (July 2) that it would be returning fourteen sculptures the museum deaccessioned in December 2023 to Cambodia. The announcement follows the launch of the institution’s Cultural Property Initiative, which saw the museum hire additional provenance researchers and install Lucian Simmons in a newly created Head of Provenance role to support new research into the Met’s collection.

But while it seems like museums are returning more art and antiquities to their points of origin, it may just be that repatriation is more likely to make headlines than in years past. “I don’t think repatriation is necessarily happening more now, but there is heightened interest in looking through museum collections to see what is there and how these things got there,” Sally Yerkovich, adjunct professor of Museum Anthropology at Columbia University and author of A Practical Guide to Museum Ethics, told Observer. She pointed to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on Cultural Property, an international treaty that aims to prevent and combat the illicit trafficking of cultural property, the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act that requires federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funding to return Native American cultural items to lineal descendants and culturally affiliated American Indian tribes, Alaska Native villages and Native Hawaiian organizations, and the 1998 Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, which recommends museums take an active role in returning to rightful heirs works of art and other property confiscated by the Nazi regime in Germany before and during World War II, as having led to a changing among museum officials in the U.S. and elsewhere. “Museums are more open to returning objects, but it is a complicated process.”

Institutions face thorny issues

It should be noted that repatriation is just one possible outcome when it becomes clear that an object has come into a museum’s permanent collection in a way that was acceptable in years past but is now viewed as questionable. Danielle Bennett, interim deputy director for collections and exhibitions at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Asian Art told Observer that “it depends. We work in consultation with parties that have an interest in the object to determine the object’s future. Sometimes an object will be returned, other times an object may remain in the museum through a shared stewardship agreement for joint care of an object. Shared stewardship agreements can take many forms, such as joint care, joint ownership or consultation on how an object is displayed. Each case is unique and has different considerations that need to be discussed.”

Ultimately, when a cultural object is in a museum’s hands, that institution often has the reservoirs of cash to pursue its ownership claims in the courts, which can drag out the process for a generation or more. Holocaust-era art collectors stripped of their holdings by the Nazi regime usually have their cases pursued by grandchildren and great-grandchildren and, when these heirs are successful, they frequently put the artworks up for sale immediately because they have lawyers’ bills to pay.

Of course, the repatriation of objects from U.S. museums brings up larger and thornier issues for these institutions. Do Western art museums, whose goals are to protect and preserve cultural objects, accomplish exactly the opposite when they become a repository for items from other cultures that may have been damaged when removed from their home environment, leaving the original site poorer for their absence? Is it possible to be an encyclopedic museum—an institution that offers visitors an abundance of information on a variety of subjects that tell both local and global stories—in an age when so many antiquities (and objects from developing countries) in the collection are being uncovered as the product of looting?

Eighteen years ago, outgoing Metropolitan Museum of Art director Philippe de Montebello told The New York Times that “the truth is, unattractive as it may be, the black market, to a certain extent, is responsible for the preservation of a great many objects.” Perhaps typical at that time, his point of view now has a shrinking number of supporters. Collecting antiquities and other cultural objects from the developing world is seen as synonymous with theft. Capitalism itself is often held to blame since, according to David Gill, a professor of antiquities at Swansea University in Wales, “the passionate desire to collect ‘ancient art’ by wealthy individuals creates a market and thus provides an incentive for” looters. Ricardo Elia, professor of archaeology at Boston University, doesn’t pull any punches when he asserts that “collectors are the real looters,” explaining that they “cause looting by creating a market demand for antiquities.” Looting, in turn, causes forgeries and the problems of looting and forgery, he said, “fundamentally corrupt the integrity of the field of ancient art history.” What we can say with certainty is that provenance research teams, already up to their necks in work, clearly have even more to do.

A Look at Museum Repatriation in 2024