These Once-Stolen Ancient Artifacts Have Yet To Be Returned To Their Home Countries

Though it came from Egypt, the famous bust of Nefertiti is currently housed at Berlin's Egyptian Museum. Underworld/Shutterstock

Madison Dapcevich 10 Dec 2020, 15:53

Throughout history, art has served as a symbol to represent and archive humanity. Unfortunately, it can also divide cultures and countries. Plundered art and antiquities are estimated to be worth more than $6 billion per year on the black market alone.

A 1970 UNESCO convention prohibited the import, export, and transfer of cultural property, which includes scientific, historical, artistic, or religiously significant art and artifacts. More than 100 countries have now adopted the rules and regulations to prevent the illegal trade of smuggled or stolen artifacts. But it still happens. Many of the finest pieces of cultural heritage are currently housed in museums in countries other than their home, particularly in Europe and the US. 

Here's a look at some of the most contentious artifacts of cultural and historic value that have spurred cultural wars across borders and continents.

Rosetta Stone, Egypt

Tourists visiting the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum in London. Claudio Divizia/Shutterstock

Written in three separate scripts in Demotic, Greek, and Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Rosetta Stone is a stone tableau that was carved in 196 BCE and found by French soldiers nearly 2,000 years later in 1799. Shortly after, it was sent to England to be deciphered by Egyptologists and it has been housed in the British Museum in London since 1802. 

Named for the town that it was found in, El-Rashid (which had been “Europeanized” to Rosetta), the stone measures 1.1 meters (3.6 feet) tall and 0.8 meters (2.5 feet) wide. Unfortunately, the inscriptions aren’t as ethereal as one might hope. The text is a copy of a decree passed by a council of priests celebrating the anniversary of the coronation of Egyptian King Ptolemy V Epiphanes.

For more than a decade, Egypt has been asking for the UK to return the stone, but to no avail, creating tensions between the two nations.

Priam's Treasure, Turkey

Items from the Troy II treasure ("Priam's Treasure") discovered by Heinrich Schliemann. The photo was likely taken before the collection was divided in 1880. Wikimedia Commons

A treasure trove of gold, copper, shields, weapons, and other artifacts first discovered in the 1870s by German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann who claimed it belonged to Trojan King Priam has been at the crux of a "cultural war" for decades. 

Also known as the Trojan Gold, the booty dates back to between 2600 and 2450 BCE and was found at what is thought to be the site of ancient Troy in what is now northwestern Turkey. Like many artifacts, it was illegally smuggled overseas for display in European museums. During World War II, ancient artifacts were among the many different bounties axis powers stole and hid for a rainy day – one of which turned out to be Priam's Treasure. Half a century later, Russia put the treasure on display at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow in 1996, after it had been kept hidden for decades. 

Here's where it gets muddy. Turkey wants its treasure back and Germany argues it was stolen from them. Meanwhile, the Russian government contends the 200 items are war reparations for Germany's destruction of their cities even though Russia is technically bound under a 1990 treaty to return goods to Germany. 

Nefertiti's Bust, Egypt

Vladimir Wrangel/Shutterstock

A 1912 Egyptian excavation conducted by a German archaeologist first discovered the limestone bust of ancient Egypt's Queen Nefertiti, who reigned from 1353 to 1336 BCE. Described as one of the "first ranking works of Egyptian art" due to its color and fine modeling, the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities claims that the 50-centimeter (20-inch) sculpture, which has resided in Berlin’s Egyptian Museum since 1923, was sold to the museum under false pretenses and rightfully belongs to its home country. Meanwhile, Germany insists it owns Nefertiti and curators at Berlin's Egyptian Museum say even a short loan could damage it. 

The Parthenon Marbles, Greece

The Elgin Marbles on display at the British Museum in London. Wikimedia Commons

At the turn of the 19th century, British nobleman Thomas Bruce – more commonly known as Lord Elgin – was so fascinated with Greece’s Parthenon that he began removing frescoes and ancient marble sculptures to export to Britain under the guise that the region’s Ottoman occupiers had said he could take whatever he wanted. After many financial trials and tribulations on Elgin’s part, the marbles eventually went on show at the British Museum, London in 1817 where they have been housed ever since.

Since the early 1980s, Greece has maintained that the marbles were taken under less-than-honest circumstances and has asked for them back, along with all Parthenon sculptures in the museum. Again, British officials argue that transferring the marbles back would do more harm than good as the priceless carvings could get damaged and the museum's millions of visitors would no longer be able to see them. 

Old Fisherman from Aphrodisias, Turkey

Torso of the old fisherman. Wikimedia Commons

A 2,000-year-old marble torso known as the “Old Fisherman from Aphrodisias” features an old, decrepit man with a furrowed brow and unkempt hair. The 66-centimeter-tall (26-inch) bust was discovered in 1989 during an excavation in Aphrodisias, a historic cultural region in southwestern Turkey famous for marble quarries and, as such, the sculptors that used them.

Shortly after, the statue was moved to Germany where officials argue that it was acquired legally, but that legal ground gets fuzzy. Exporting ancient treasures from the Ottoman Empire was prohibited by law in 1884 but, as is often the case, exemptions existed in special circumstances. For many years, Turkey has demanded the return of what culture and history officials believe are stolen artifacts, including the whiskered old man. Until then, the fisherman resides at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin

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