From a U.S. craft store chain to the British Museum, many pieces proudly displayed in the world’s museums have gotten there through illegal means. Today, several countries whose cultural artifacts have been pillaged, stolen, or smuggled are now demanding them back.

The Loot

In September of this year, the multi-year legal battles over U.S. craft store chain Hobby Lobby’s stolen Iraqi artifacts finally came to a close. On September 23, 2021, the United States government repatriated over 17,000 cultural artifacts to Iraq that had been illegally taken during the period of instability following the US-led invasion. Among those items was a 3,500 year-old clay tablet reciting the epic of Gilgamesh that had been stolen from Iraq in 2001, and subsequently sold to Hobby Lobby in 2014 for display in their Museum of the Bible located in Washington, D.C. This tablet had been the subject of a 2020 complaint from the U.S. Department of Justice, and last month a federal judge ordered it to be returned to Iraq. This complaint followed a 2017 investigation, where the Justice Department found that thousands of artifacts had been illegally smuggled into the U.S. and bought by Hobby Lobby. Following the investigation, the craft store chain agreed to pay $3 million and forfeit several hundred artifacts.  

Hobby Lobby is not the only entity that has come under fire over stolen cultural artifacts. The British Museum, located in central London, has come under fire for housing several artifacts that were stolen during the colonial era. One artifact display that is highly contentious is the display of the Benin Bronzes, a series of metal castings from the ancient Kingdom of Benin, located in southern Nigeria. For many years, Nigeria has pushed for their return so that they can be housed in a planned museum in Edo. The British Museum has said that it plans to return the display to Edo, but has yet to make any further actions. The British museum is also home to the Rosetta Stone, an ancient tablet originating from Egypt, which Egypt claims was stolen and has asked for its return.

These are only a few of the many examples of stolen artifacts that have found their way into museums far away from their country of origin.

The Law

Following the end of World War II and the rise of new states emerging out of the colonial era, the Constitution of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was adopted, and with it the idea that cultural property warranted international protection. In 1954, UNESCO adopted the Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict including Regulations, making it the first instrument of international law that specifically governed cultural property, defining it and laying out parameters for its protection during times of war. This convention currently has 133 parties, and several countries, including the U.S., have used this Convention to influence domestic law

In 1970, by the proposal of several young countries, came the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. This convention requires state parties to create domestic frameworks to prohibit and prevent illicit trafficking of cultural property (Article 5 and 6), provides provisions for states to create restitution and compensation mechanisms (Article 7 and 8), and commits state parties to cooperate through negotiations and bilateral treaties on behalf of a requesting party that is in need of help (Article 9). This convention only applies to theft or illicit trafficking that involve museums or like institutions, so it does not apply to private collectors, and it is silent on whether a violation of a temporary loan constitutes illicit trafficking.

To fill in some of the holes of the 1970 Convention, the UNIDROIT 1995 Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects applies to the “possessor of a cultural object,” so any person who possesses a cultural object is required to return it. This convention also sets out time limits for restitution claims and sets out a due diligence requirement for the acquisition of cultural artifacts. This convention also makes it clear that “a cultural object temporarily exported and not returned under the terms of the export permit must be deemed to have been illegally exported.” Neither the 1970 Convention nor the 1995 Convention apply retroactively, which means they do not apply to pieces such as the Benin Bronzes or other artifacts that were stolen long before international law on cultural artifacts emerged.

The housing of stolen artifacts in collections and museums sheds light on the vestiges of colonialism and armed conflict, and the repatriation of these artifacts to their countries of origin represents the reclaiming of that country’s cultural history. 

Author Biography: Caroline Dumoulin is a senior moderator of the International Law Society’s International Law and Policy Brief (ILPB) and a  J.D. candidate at The George Washington University Law School. She earned her bachelor’s in international affairs and history from Florida State University and is interested in international human rights law.