Returning cultural heritage to its rightful owner

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Returning cultural heritage to its rightful owner

December 06, 2020 - 17:33
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On 3 June 2009, a United States federal court judge made history when he ordered a Florida-based treasure hunting company to return 17 tonnes of gold and silver coins to Spain. Odyssey Marine Exploration of Tampa made the spectacular find off the coast of Portugal in 2007. Odyssey refused to divulge the identity of the shipwreck the coins came from or its location. But the company was forced to do so the previous year by the same judge, Magistrate Mark Pizzo.

The stuff of dreams! Financially significant artifacts recovered from shipwrecks off the coast of Florida

Earlier that summer, the government of Spain successfully argued that, under the terms of international Sovereign Immunity, it never abandoned or otherwise relinquished its ownership of the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, which sunk during a sea battle with the British Navy in 1804. At the time of its loss, the Mercedes was sailing back to Spain from South America.

Odyssey has said that it will appeal Judge Pizzo’s ruling and will “vigorously defend” its right to the treasure. The 500,000 plus coins remain under lock and key in the company’s warehouse.

Finders Keepers?

This isn’t the first time that the “owner” of cultural artifacts has refused to return said to its country of origin. Typically, their position is that they were doing the world a favor—saving the items in question from the ravages of time and/or the environment. When it comes to shipwrecks, this is often referred to as the “tides and time” argument.

This is the case with, arguably, the world’s most famous case of “questionable ownership”, the Elgin Marbles. They are a collection of classical Greek marble sculptures from the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis of Athens in Greece. They were removed by laborers working for Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, in the early 19th century and were later sold, by him, to the British government.

Elgin, who was the British ambassador to Greece at the time, argued that if he hadn’t taken what he did, when he did, they would have been destroyed. The practice at the time was for Athenians to burn ancient marble for its lime, which they then used to make concrete for new buildings.

Air pollution over the years has also taken its toll on the Parthenon’s remaining sculptures.

In Britain, Elgin was criticized for his actions, labeled by some as vandalism. Others described him as a looter.  After much public debate, the British government purchased the Elgin Marbles in 1816 and placed them on display in London’s British Museum—where they remain to this day.


However, the modern-day state of Greece argues that the Parthenon sculptures were removed illegally. It challenges the authenticity of the government document that Elgin alleges he was issued, allowing him to remove the artifacts. Elgin destroyed the original.

Goodwill Gesture

The remains of the great Egyptian pharaoh, Ramesses I, had been lost to history until they were found on display in a tacky “Freaks of Nature” tourist exhibit in Niagara Falls, USA, in the mid 1990s. The three thousand year-old royal mummy eventually made its way to Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

In 2003, Ramesses I was returned to Egypt with full official honors—a gift from the people of Atlanta to the people of Egypt.   “It was simply the right thing to do,” said the university museum’s curator, Peter Lacovara. Since then, the general director of Egypt’s Supreme Council on Antiquities, Zahi Hawass, has put other museums around the world on notice, saying that he expects Egypt’s cultural artifacts returned.

The G’psgolox Pole, a native mortuary pole from British Columbia, Canada, now resides at a museum in Stockholm, Sweden. The Canadian government allowed the totem pole to be exported to Sweden in the 1920s. Today, the people of B.C.’s Kitamaat First Nation want their pole back!    The Swedes have agreed to do this, but on the condition that a suitable museum is built to house it.  

Museums, from Los Angeles to the Vatican, have recently repatriated art and artifacts deemed important to a nation’s cultural heritage. In recent years, technological advancements have allowed treasure hunters to find and salvage many shipwrecks. This has lead to the loss of many particularly valuable archaeological sites, according to Koichiro Matssura, the director general of UNESCO.

Escalating prices on the international market for shipwreck artifacts is also adding to the problem. International auction houses hawk gold artifacts and jewelry recovered from Spanish galleons.

And online, a person can buy 8th century Chinese ceramics looted from a shipwreck in Indonesia or coins from a 17th century shipwreck found off the coast of West Africa.
As Matssura points out, artifacts from marine archaeological sites are not treasure to be discovered only by those who have the ability to appropriate them. ■