Saturday, April 28, 2012

Preemptive Repatriation

Recent returns of cultural property from the United States to Italy contrast sharply with the controversy between American and European museums in 2006. The contentious cases for repatriation of antiquities from The Getty and The Met to Italy and Greece, in retrospect, led to a policy of proactive repatriation. What does the initiative for repatriation mean for the role of cultural property in diplomacy?
Reports of investigations of American museums suggest that contested ownership of cultural property is being converted from a cause of controversy to a means for cooperation. Further, members of security services are being cast as diplomats. The Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Janet Napolitano, agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and U.S. Attorneys feature prominently in the reports. The agents and attorneys speak of vigilance in working with their Italian counterparts "to ensure cultural artifacts and treasures that were stolen and entered this country illegally are recovered and returned to their rightful home nations."
The cases have mixed success, which results in return, retention, or indecision. Reuters reported a recent return of objects from the U.S. to Italy, while in April a "Thwarted Return of the Mummy" from a St. Louis museum to Egypt marked a downturn in the trend of repatriation. Interestingly, also in April, Cambodia vacillated on accepting the help of U.S. Attorneys who stood ready to seize the 10th-century figure of a mythological warrior from Sotheby's. In any case, the initiative seems quite clear. The United States is devoting domestic security and legal resources to respond to foreign concerns over cultural patrimony.
Proactive repatriation by DHS and the Department of Justice seems like a good example of how cultural security bridges hard power with soft power.

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