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Culture and Education

Looted cultural property—who owns it?

Mitsuzane Okauchi
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

An International Meeting in Egypt

An international meeting in Cairo, Egypt concerning the “Return and Protection of Cultural Property” was held for two days from April 7-8, 2010. A total of 21 countries including South Korea, China, India, Greece, Italy, Syria, Egypt, and Peru participated in a discussion which pressed for the return of such famous antiquities as the bust of Queen Nefertiti and the Rosetta Stone.

When visiting Europe's World Heritage Sites and Museums, people invariably end up observing antiquities from Greece, Rome, and Egypt. Surprisingly, this is often the case with the smaller museums in the area. This is the result of accumulation of artifacts discovered since the onset of the Age of Exploration in the 16th century.

Currently, any artifacts obtained in a foreign country or by any means other than exhumation, exchange, donation, purchase, and the like are required under a UNESCO treaty to be returned to their country of origin. After contemplating the damage done to cultural property in World War II, the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict was proposed in May of that year. Thereafter, theft, illegal digging, plunder and other unjust or unfair methods of obtaining artifacts through illegal business transactions were banned by a 1970 treaty. With regard to cultural and natural heritage sources, the Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage was adopted in 1972.

For a number of years there have been continued efforts with regard to the return of cultural property, beginning with the Rosetta Stone and Dead Sea scrolls, and the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon. However, there are few instances of countries that presently possess such cultural properties returning or transferring them to their place of origin. Claims that such cultural property was properly obtained and not illegally or unjustly looted, as well as opinions such as those raised by the British Museum about the significance of the situation where countries that currently possess such objects, help preserve them form a backdrop to this. On the other hand, it is argued, countries pressing for their return have inadequate display equipment or preservation techniques, concerns which come to light after such cultural properties have been returned. For example, the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon weren’t able to be displayed again at the Greek Acropolis because of air pollution, and construction on a museum that could practically preserve them hasn't started yet. Egypt, which has pressed for the return of many artifacts, has built a museum near the Great Pyramid of Giza for the purpose of displaying them. When it comes to cultural property, there is still a deep and gaping chasm between the two sides—the countries that originally owned the artifacts and those who currently have them in their possession.

Asia's Lost Cultural Property

An overwhelming amount of Asia's lost cultural property comes from China, with its long history and overwhelming amount of materials. Paintings, sculptures, documents, and other archaeological items from nearly every field have been taken away by foreign countries. It is possible that some of these items were unjustly and illegally taken or looted. Each time I go on a Silk Road expedition, I see illegal digging of the ancient mounds in Turfan, and Buddhist statues and murals from the Mogao and Bezeklik Caves cruelly stripped from their walls and pedestals. More than ten thousand items have been carried out of the Mogao Caves. These are items such as volumes of Buddhist scriptures, documents, and other Buddhist pictures. They have been taken from the caves and are now owned by countries like the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia, America, and Japan.

The problem of lost cultural property has been an issue in East Asia, including Japan, Korea and China. When Japan advanced into the Asian continent from the early 20th century to the end of World War II, cultural property from China and South Korea were sent back to Japan.

From Korea there are goods related to the Lelang Commandery, items discovered from tombs of the Three Kingdoms period, pottery from the ancient tombs of the Goryeo dynasty, stone carvings, temple paintings, scriptures, and other ancient documents. There are a total of five books that list the “Korean Cultural Assets held by Japan.”

From China there are items related to Manchuria, in the northeastern part of the country, Shanghai, Nanjing, Hangzhou and cities on the Yangtze River. Examples of items related to the National Palace Museum in Taiwan include specimens including antiques, books, and other archaeological materials. Incidents like the disappearance of a specimen of Peking Man have also occurred. China has a record of such incidents called the "Index of Cultural Property looted by Taiwan."

A joint conference was held between Japan and Korea in 1952 which began negotiations for the return of various cultural assets. In 1965 a total of 163 volumes and 852 books, as well as 20 examples of communications material were handed over. Also included were about 176 examples of ceramics, stone-carved works of art, archaeological materials, and personal accessories for a total of 434 items. However, some cultural property is designated as privately held, while others have not been delivered because they are located north of the armistice line. A list of those items has not been published.

Who owns looted cultural property?

Cultural property and World Heritage sites are a vital resource which enriches our lives, a spiritual foundation. These resources are not for individuals or a group of people or nation, and they are not regarded as possessions, but rather they are beginning to be viewed as a common asset for all of humanity. Regardless of nation or ethnic group, cultural assets and World Heritage sites are unique in the world, and their preservation, succession, and practical use are unquestionably important matters. For that reason, the maintenance of the areas surrounding World Heritage sites, as well as the enhancement of museums, art galleries and libraries available to all are important and necessary services. Elaborate replica displays, digitalization of materials and joint ownership of information is recommended, and an international network must be built to make use of and share this information. It is a common view that cultural assets be shared by humanity, and their continued preservation and practical use is something we aspire to.

Mitsuzane Okauchi
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Jan 1943 - Born.
Apr 1969 - Graduated from Waseda University School of Humanities and Social
Sciences with a degree in Oriental History.
Mar 1972 - Attained a Master of Arts degree in Archaeology from Kyoto University
Mar 1975 - Completed doctoral work in the same field at Kyoto University
Apr 1975 - Assistant, Department of Literature, Kyoto University (until Mar 31, 1986)
Apr 1986 - Assistant professor, Integrated Science Department, Tokushima University (until Mar 31, 1992)
Apr 1992 to present - Resident professor, Department of literature, Waseda University
Apr 2004 to present - Head of the Silk Road research and study group, Waseda University

Published works
2008 “Archaeology of the Silk Road” Waseda University Department of Literature
2006 “An investigation of the excavation of Turpan - Jiaohe” – “Silk Road Academic Research Volume 15.”
2003 “Reconstructing history by looking at Archaeology”, Waseda University Department of Literature, Trans Art Publishing
2002 “A report on Chengnan district cemetery at Jiaohe old city, Turpan, China", Tokyo Symposium for Digital Silk Roads, proceeding. National Institute of Informatics, UNESCO.
1980 “A comparative study of King Muryeong of Baekje’s tomb and the Southern Court graves.” “Study of the Kingdom of Baekje”, 11th volume