9 Famous Stolen Artifacts That Are Still on Display in Museums Today
As attitudes continue to change and countries begin to take responsibility for their colonial pasts, more and more victims of colonization are beginning to demand the return of their cultural heritage in the form of art and artifacts.
In Western Europe, France, under the auspices of President Emmanuel Macron, has been at the forefront of this movement for nearly two years, beginning when Macron commissioned a report detailing possible repatriation opportunities from France’s public collection of art that could be returned to Africa. During a visit in Burkina Faso in 2018, Macron said, “I cannot accept that a large part of cultural heritage from several African countries is in France. There are historical explanations for that, but there are no valid justifications that are durable and unconditional. African heritage can’t just be in European private collections and museums.” Though keen observers will note that exactly zero items have been returned from France to Africa since Macron gave this impassioned speech, he also said that these efforts would be implemented over the next five years, giving him a deadline of 2023.
Since Macron’s statement, other nations and collectors have begun more critically analyzing their own cultural holdings to see if they stand up to our contemporary understanding of ethical ownership. Though there have been some excellent recent strides and some uplifting examples of the willing repatriation of artifacts, there remain thousands of works that are still illegally or unethically held, and some of them are far more notable than you may think. Here are nine famous examples of pillaged artifacts that are still displayed in museums in imperialist countries to this day.
1. The Rosetta Stone
A granodiorite stele that dates to 196 BCE, the Rosetta Stone may be the single most influential Egyptological discovery in history. Carved with a dynastical decree in 196 BCE in Memphis, Egypt, it bears the inscription of the same message in three scripts: Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics, Demotic scripts, and lastly ancient Greek. While today it seems commonplace to translate hieroglyphics, in 1799 when it was discovered, hieroglyphics remained yet undecipherable.
Found by a Napoleonic expedition near Rashid, then Rosetta, Egypt, the find was an instant sensation in Europe where Egyptomania had gripped the population. The notion that it could be used like a key to decrypt ancient Egyptian scripts began to be reported immediately after its discovery, though that process actually took 25 years to gain good proficiency.
Two years later, in 1801, British troops arrived in Egypt, eventually overtaking the French regime. Among the spoils was the Rosetta Stone, and though the French presented lengthy arguments as to why it should remain the property of France — one scholar, Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, even declaring he preferred the cache of stolen Egyptian artifacts to be burned rather than hand them over to the British — the stone became the property of Great Britain and remains so to this day. It resides in the British Museum from which Egypt has not yet successfully secured its return.
2. The Man-Eaters of Tsavo
Between March and December 1898, a single pair of maneless, male lions began attacking and devouring members of a crew constructing a railroad bridge across the Tsavo river in what is now Kenya. Though the number of victims varies greatly depending on which account you follow, the man-eaters killed somewhere between 28 and 140 people in less than a year, many of them Indian laborers that the British had conscripted to work on the project.
As the attacks continued, workers began fleeing the construction site, refusing to work until the lions were either successfully relocated or killed. Eventually, John Henry Patterson, the head engineer of the project, mounted an attack himself and shot both lions to death, about 20 days apart from each other in an organized effort to hunt them down.
Nicknamed Ghost and Darkness by Patterson himself, they spent the next 25 years as his personal floor rugs before eventually being sold to the Field Museum in Chicago, IL, for $5000. The skins arrived in Chicago very damaged but were carefully restored and expertly taxidermied to be displayed to the public, as they remain today. Kenya still maintains that the pair are a part of the cultural history of their country and deserve to be returned.
3. Magdala Ethiopian Treasures
After the battle of Magdala in 1868, the victorious British stole thousands of priceless items important to the Ethiopian Empire from the city of Magdala and the Ethiopian Christian Church of Medhane Alem. So much was stolen that it took 15 elephants and hundreds of mules to transport the goods to a nearby town for auction, where among the attendees was Richard Holmes who, under the auspices of the British Museum, purchased hundreds of manuscripts, an intricately woven royal wedding gown, and the much-coveted Crown of Abud — a gold crown that once sat atop the head of the leader of the Ethiopian Church.
Though a thorough catalog of the items stolen is not available, many artifacts from this haul have maintained their provenance since, and Ethiopia — which has ceded territory but was never colonized by Europeans — has requested their return.
Unfortunately, the Victoria and Albert Museum, which arguably holds the most prized pieces of the haul, has not been entirely transparent in its talks with the Ethiopian ambassador to the UK about returning the items.
While Tristram Hunt, the director of the V&A, agreed to return several items, the offer contained the duplicitous caveat that the return actually be characterized as a loan and that the Ethiopian government would have to formally withdraw legal claim to the items to proceed. Because of the nature of this proposed scenario, Ethiopia declined, and the items can still be seen in London, where they are displayed “with euphemistic labels and avoid critical accounts of the manner in which they were seized,” as Geoffrey Robertson described it for CNN.
4. The Elgin Marbles
So named after Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin, these marble friezes are more appropriately named the Parthenon Marbles after the site they were pillaged from in Greece. It is largely considered so elemental to the cultural history of the world that they are reunited with their original installation site that their repatriation has even garnered the attention of UNESCO, which was unfortunately unable to broker a mediation between the United Kingdom and Greece.
Though told many times that it would be unlawful to take these portions of the Acropolis, Elgin ignored these warnings and methodically removed nearly half of the site’s existing marble friezes over the course of approximately 11 years, the project being completed in 1812. They were then shipped by sea to Scotland where they decorated the walls of his private home. Only a very costly divorce would encourage Elgin to sell them, which he did, to the British Government for less than the cost he incurred personally to procure them. He was so set on keeping them within the UK that he turned down many higher offers, even one he reportedly received from Napoleon himself.
The Parthenon Marbles are currently the property of the British Museum. But as Greek European MEP Rodi Kratssta noted in talks over the fate of the friezes, “They symbolise the very foundation of Greek and European culture, one which is of universal significance. The dismembered sculptures offend our common European heritage and its perception worldwide.”
5. The Bust of Nefertiti
Arguably the most recognized bust in all of antiquity, the Bust of Nefertiti, originally crafted by Egypt’s Thutmose in the 14th century, was unearthed by the German Oriental Company in 1912. It was taken from Amara to Berlin where it was presented to the benefactor of the expedition, James Simon. Though he lent the bust to the Berlin Museum in 1913, Simon implored them not to display it and to keep its existence a secret. It was not displayed publicly for 11 years, during which time Simon repeatedly begged the museum to maintain its secrecy surrounding the bust, likely fueled by his own knowledge of the duplicitous nature of its procurement.
Though it has moved between many German museums in the years since, it is currently housed by the Neues Museum in Berlin, though Egypt has been asking for it to be returned since its public debut in 1924. Former director of Egyptology Zahi Hawass asked for the bust to be returned in 2008 to coincide with the opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza. Despite the many hurdles in its construction and the COVID-19 pandemic, the museum is finally scheduled to open in 2021, though the Neues Museum has yet declined to return the iconic object.
6. Zimbabwe Bird
In southeast Zimbabwe near the city of Masvingo lie the ruins of the palatial complex of former King Munhumutapa and the larger complex of Great Zimbabwe, a UNESCO heritage site. Well over a hundred years ago, eight nearly identical carved soapstone birds flanked its front entrance, though they were all eventually stolen by colonizers and secreted out of the country. Six of them ended up in South Africa, one of which was owned by Cecil Rhodes himself, the ruthless imperialist who founded the colonial nation of Rhodesia. Today the birds hold such strong cultural significance to the now-independent nation of Zimbabwe that they appear on currency and even the national flag.
Today, nearly all of the soapstone sculptures have been returned, even five from the nation of South Africa. Ironically, this is also the country wherein the last missing bird remains. In Cape Town, in Rhodes’ former estate, now a museum known as Groote Schuur, the bird still sits in the colonizers’ former bedroom. During his lifetime, Rhodes was so brazen in his ownership of the item that he replicated it into other design elements at the estate, like the carvings in the wainscoting and adornments on the banisters. Upon his death, he willed his estate to the South African government, which owns his former house — and thus the Zimbabwe Bird — to this day, and has yet to return it despite an international grassroots effort to facilitate exactly that.
7. The Benin Bronzes
Stolen by British forces from the Kingdom of Benin in what is modern-day Nigeria, the Benin Bronzes are a collection of (mostly brass) plaques made between the 13th and 18th centuries. Though it was thought during British colonization that the Beninese must have learned such advanced metallurgy from Portuguese traders, later studies proved that the techniques used in their creation were wholly local.
After their theft in 1897, and though roughly half of them became the property of the British Museum, many were purchased by museums in Germany, Austria, and the United States. Some even ended up in private collections; renowned Spanish painter Pablo Picasso supposedly even owned one.
Nigeria has asked repeatedly for the specimens currently housed in the British Museum to be returned ahead of the opening of their new national museum in Lagos. Currently set to open in 2021, it will include state of the art facilities for housing and preserving art and artifacts, and would pose only benefits to the preservation of these works.
Though they were clearly and admittedly stolen by Great Britain in several then-sanctioned acts of looting, acts that would today defy international law regulating such property, the British Museum has remained wholly unrepentant in their ownership of about 700 of the bronzes. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York also owns 163 of them but has been slightly more open to discussing their return, though none have yet exchanged hands.
8. Priam’s Treasure
Possibly because of the precedent set by the archeologist responsible for the treasure’s original rediscovery in 1873, the history, provenance, and authenticity of the treasure have been under constant scrutiny and dispute, and much of the research surrounding it seems riddled with errors and an overall aura of duplicitousness.
These artifacts were somewhat ham-fistedly excavated from an only tenuously legal archeological site in Northern Turkey by Heinrich Schliemann who, among other errors that he made, thought they could be attributed to Homeric Troy, though they are now known to be from an era at least a few hundred years earlier. Nevertheless, the items from the excavation are numerous and spectacular and include thousands of pieces of solid gold jewelry.
The treasure’s journey to where they now reside at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow began with Schliemann smuggling the goods out of Anatolia, though it’s unclear exactly how he accomplished this feat. The items made their way to Berlin where, while housed at the national museum, they became subject to possible theft at the end of World War II. Supposedly, this is why Wilhelm Unverzagt surrendered the items to the Soviet Arts Committee: as an attempt to prevent them from being damaged or divided.
They were flown to Moscow from Berlin where they remain today, though Turkey has maintained that they expect the items to be returned. Conveniently, Russia created its own national law which details the theft of the treasure as legitimate, which they cite whenever asked about the treasure’s return.
9. The Koh-i-Noor Diamond
Of all the items on this list, the Koh-i-Noor Diamond seems to be the only object replete with a curse. Fabled to bring bad luck upon any man who wears it, it has only been worn by female members of the British royal family since it was ceded to Queen Victoria when Great Britain annexed the Punjab in 1849. It was likely originally mined in the Kollur Mine in India, and though there is no record of its original weight, it currently has 66 facets and measures 105.6 carats after being recut in 1952. The stone adorns the front of the front of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother’s Crown.
Though Great Britain claims to have come upon it legally — though admittedly after their imperial takeover, thus creating the British Raj — its provenance has always been curiously disputed with no less than four countries currently claiming a right to the jewel. In 2000, even the Taliban sought ownership of it when their foreign affairs spokesman Faiz Ahmed Faiz claimed, “The history of the diamond shows it was taken from us to India, and from there to Britain.”
But despite these numerous claims to the contrary, the British government remains unswayed that their ownership of the gem is legitimate, and they have refused to even consider its removal from the crown jewels, a collection with which it sits today in the Tower of London, on display to the public.