Searching for lost treasures

For millennia, the world’s museums have housed treasures gathered from all corners of the globe. But what happens when the original owners want them back?

It was an ordinary day in 2018 when Laura Young discovered something that would make headlines around the world. She was in her local thrift shop, scouting for treasures for her online vintage store, when she spotted a large, handsome bust with a US$34.99 price sticker on it. The heavy classical ornament was sitting under a table near a ramp in the Goodwill store in her home city of Austin, Texas, and she immediately sensed it was something unusual.  

“It was in a dark space underneath a display table. They had inventory stacked on top of, and larger items shoved under the table,” Laura tells The Weekly. She touched it, confirming it was marble. When she tried to pick it up, she could barely lift it. “It weighs 50lbs. Obviously I’m buying it.” She asked a staff member to help her, trying not to look too excited.  

Laura had quit her government job in 2013 to devote herself full-time to her online antique store. She spent her days trawling op shops and antique stores, favouring Houston and Dallas, where oil money made for rich pickings. She had a degree in history, and a good instinct for unearthing valuable finds. In 2012 she had purchased a painting from an estate sale for US$12. It turned out to be the work of renowned Chinese artist Zao Wou-ki and she sold it, via Christie’s auction house, for US$62,000. The Wou-ki discovery would prove to be small-time compared to the marble bust.

A woman posing with a marble statue.
Laura Young knew the sculpture she found in the Goodwill store was something special. (Image supplied.)

“I knew it was something good,” Laura says of the bust. “Especially when I saw it in the sunlight. I was literally doing Google image searches of Greco Roman busts while driving home on the freeway. Immediately, I’m like, I have to look this up right now!”

When she got home, she emailed Bonham’s, Christie’s and Sotheby’s auction houses. “Bonham’s got back to me in less than a week,” Laura says. The bust, they explained, looked to be Roman, likely from the first century AD. Laura was thrilled her instincts had been right. However, the auction house queried the item’s origins. “They essentially cannot help me until I know the provenance prior to me getting it at the thrift store,” Laura says. It was naïve of her, she says, not to have thought about that. “How did it get there? It never occurred to me. I’m not usually buying ancient art.”

A couple of days later, Laura got another call. It was the head of Sotheby’s classics department. His team had found the bust catalogued in the Bavarian state collection. It was believed to be a sculpture of Roman military commander Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus or Sextus Pompey, purchased by King Ludvig I of Bavaria in around 1833. King Ludvig had built a Roman-style Pompejanum after visiting Italy and filled it with artefacts so the public could learn about classical antiquity. Even in 1833, the bust had been a precious antique.    

“The question was, at that point, was the bust legally sold, or was it stolen? Because museums will occasionally sell off some of their collections,” Laura says.

It was worth more than her flat, and it made her nervous to have it in her home.

Laura investigated further. “The Germans initially got back to me to confirm that he had gone missing,” she says. And they wanted it back. It dawned on Laura that she couldn’t sell the bust, and she found herself navigating the delicate task of repatriating a plundered treasure.

The Goodwill store find turned out to be a 2000-year-old treasure. (Image supplied)

It’s a thorny issue which many museums and art collectors are now having to contend with, as communities around the world call for the return of their cultural heritage items, many of which were looted.

As recently as 2002, directors of 18 museums, including the Louvre, The Met, The Guggenheim and institutions in Berlin, St Petersburg and Florence, signed a declaration on the importance of museums in housing items displaced from their original source. While the statement condemned the illegal trafficking of archaeological and artistic objects, it argued items acquired centuries ago “have become part of the museums that have cared for them”. There had long been a fear that returning significant items would be a “slippery slope … That suddenly we’ll have to give everything back and knowledge will be worse off for it,” says journalist Marc Fennell who investigated the subject for the ABC TV series, Stuff the British Stole.

But attitudes are changing, as the huge success of efforts to repatriate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage items shows. In April this year, Cambridge University returned four Gweagal Spears taken by James Cook and Joseph Banks in 1770 to the La Perouse Aboriginal Community.

Jason Lyons, who leads the Return of Cultural Heritage Team at The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), says this return was hugely important. “They’re arguably the most significant items ever collected from Australia,” he says.

Dame Sally Davies, of Cambridge, says the return was a “rewarding and respectful process”. However not all cases are as clear cut.

A Greek tragedy

Last November, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak abruptly cancelled a meeting with Greece’s PM, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, after the Greek leader told the BBC he was hoping to broach the touchy subject of the Parthenon Marbles. The disputed artefacts were removed from Athens by Britain’s Lord Elgin in the early 1800s and have been part of the British Museum Collection since 1816. The sculptures and friezes in the UK represent about 50 per cent of the surviving artefacts from the ancient structure. The rest are housed in Greece’s Acropolis Museum. Mr Mitsotakis said keeping some of the marbles in London “was like cutting the Mona Lisa in half”, incensing the British PM.

The Parthenon Marbles are perhaps the most famous artefacts whose ownership is disputed.

“It’s a deeply, deeply tangled web of laws and nationalism,” says Marc Fennell. In the UK, “the attitude that prevails is, ‘We paid for it fair and square’. But … they paid that guy for it as opposed to the Greek people or even the Ottoman empire.”  

The ABC’s Marc Fennell travelled to Europe to try to understand the Parthenon Marbles dispute. (Image supplied)

Lord Elgin was Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire which was occupying Greece at the time the marbles were removed. Lord Elgin stated he had permission to remove items from the Parthenon and ordered a team of workers to extract the marbles using saws, hammers and chisels. Over several years, Elgin’s men prised 17 pedimental figures, 15 metopes and 75 metres of marble frieze from the Temple of Athena. Elgin then shipped them back to England.

Before the British government accepted the marbles, Lord Elgin’s actions were investigated by a Parliamentary Select Committee in 1816 and “found to be entirely legal”. The British Museum maintains this position to this day. British Law prevents the museum from deaccessioning (or removing from its collections) its treasures.

Not long after Greece gained independence in 1832, its government petitioned the British for the return of the marbles. The campaign was re-ignited in the early 1980s when a Greek film star, Merlina Mercouri, was elected to parliament and appointed cultural minister. She made it her mission to get the marbles back to Greece.

The glamorous minister, who Marc describes as “a Sophia Loren of Greece”, came up against a bullish Margaret Thatcher, who rigidly opposed the antiquities being returned. “I think that calcified some of the issues around this,” Marc says.

“Elgin argued that he had a firman, which is like an official letter from the Sultan, saying he had permission to take things from the Acropolis … People have gone into the records in Istanbul and looked and it has never been found,” Marc says.  

“What we do have is a letter that is essentially from Ottoman Empire middle-management and that letter says you can take things for study, and you can look at things that are already broken and fallen off.

“The problem with that document is, what that document allows for and what he does are two quite different things. It has been disputed what that letter actually provides him permission to do.

“The other thing is … it’s not permission from the Greek people. Greece was not a state. It did not have leadership at the time that could exert their will over the situation.”

A world of stolen treasures

Greece has some unlikely allies in its campaign. “China, for example, has been very keen to support Greece in the past because, of course, they have thousands of their artefacts around the UK that were absolutely ransacked by British and French forces in the late 1800s,” Marc says.

There are other high-profile campaigns to repatriate items housed in museums around the world. Egypt wants the Rosetta Stone back from the British Museum and the Dendera Zodiac from the Louvre. (France also has a law restraining its museums from returning cultural items.)

There has been a sustained effort to return hundreds of items pillaged from the ancient West African Kingdom of Benin in 1897 to modern day Nigeria. The Benin treasures are the subject of the Benin Dialogue Group, of which the British Museum is a founding member, which seeks to reunite the items, collectively known as The Benin Bronzes. In 2022, Cambridge University agreed to return 116 Benin items, though the British Museum’s Benin Bronzes remain among its star attractions.  

The British Museum gets around the legislation that prevents deaccessioning by offering loans, Marc says. “They’ll say to some museum on the African continent, ‘Hey, we’ll give you a long-term loan of this, and in return you’ll give us some stuff and it will be a cultural exercise and it doesn’t technically leave our collection. It always belongs to us.’ But the intimation is that they’ll never ask for it back.”

This would be unlikely to solve the Parthenon Marbles dispute because the arrangement would require Greece to accept that Britain does own the marbles, Marc says. “They’d have to sign a thing saying that they own it, and Greeks will not do that.

“The sense of injustice with Greeks has permeated for a very long time. It’s not going away, and they will always fight for it,” he adds.   

Similarly, Britain is unlikely to return the marbles any time soon.

“It is undeniably the most famous thing in the British museum,” Marc says. “To lose it would be an embarrassment. I think the British Museum can’t afford to have any more embarrassments.”

Cultural connections

There is a growing sense that the repatriation of stolen treasures increases knowledge by enabling cultural exchanges. A friendship between Australia and Manchester Museum shows how genuine bonds can be built between collecting institutes and the communities.

Last spring the Manchester Museum returned 174 items to the Anindilyakwa of Groote Eylandt, in the Northern Territory. Among the items were some shell dolls that were once used to teach young people about the community’s complex kinship system. The return of these items was “a really beautiful example” of how restoring items to their rightful home can revitalise culture, says Jason, of AIATSIS.

“There were only two or three very senior Indigenous women who actually remembered the dolls when they were being used by the community.” The return prompted “young people and old people to have conversations that they wouldn’t normally have had,” Jason adds.

“In that sense, it’s strengthening culture. It is known that when you strengthen culture it leads to better outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.”

Amathea Lalara and Deb Worsley embrace at the Manchester Museum handover event in 2023. (Image AIATSIS)

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander material has been collected from Australia for more than 300 years. The first known removal of heritage items happened when Dutch explorers searching for Indonesian spices took items from the Tiwi Islands.

AIATSIS estimates there are 175,000 objects in overseas collections, not including photos, manuscripts, audio items, or artefacts in private collections.

“We just recently sent a survey out to 380 collecting institutions and, not all of them responded, but many of them did. One hundred and fifteen institutions have come back and said they are willing to enter into return discussions. That’s up from two years ago, being about 71,” Jason says. “It’s a sign of the times.”

There are still “pockets of resistance”, he explains, but bridges are being built. When Manchester Museum agreed to return dolls and other items to the Anindilyakwa people, there was also an exchange of knowledge and culture. The museum has now purchased some dolls ethically and has a proper understanding of their significance and use.

“So often, when you see Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage material displayed in museums overseas, and unfortunately sometimes in our domestic museums, you’re reading more about who collected the material than what the item is and who made it,” Jason says.  

Anindilyakwa community members reunited with their cultural heritage material at the Anindilyakwa return celebration, Groote Eylandt. (Image AIATSIS)

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people want material to be displayed in overseas collections, but they very much want a say in how that’s done.”

Marc agrees this is the attitude of many of the communities he has engaged with. “I think a lot of communities love that their work is out there being an ambassador for them,” he observes. “But it’s the little polite plaque that doesn’t tell you the full story that drives many people up the wall.”

When in Rome

Back in Austin, Laura connected with lawyer, Leila Amineddoleh, who is a leading specialist on cultural heritage and art law. Leila had written an article in 2015 for The New York Times arguing that Britain should return the Parthenon Marbles and was subsequently hired by Greece to defend them in a lawsuit against Sotheby’s who, Greece alleged, were trying to sell a looted item.   

Leila is a passionate advocate for the restitution of cultural items, and she was glad to help Laura. But she cautioned that Laura should not expect to be paid for the item she had found.  

Nobody knows how an ancient Roman antique which was purchased by a Bavarian King made its way to the dusty floor of a Texan Goodwill store. There’s a theory that an American GI stationed in Germany during World War II smuggled it out of the country and brought it home. The head could have been sitting in an inauspicious corner of his home until, Laura guesses, he died, and his children cleared out his posessions, unknowingly delivering the stolen treasure to Goodwill.

Laura was happy to return it, but she asked that it be displayed in a local museum first.

“The Germans were nicer than they had to be,” Laura says. “The situation was awkward because I was a completely random third-party making demands that they did not technically have to [grant]. The bust went missing because someone committed a war crime, essentially.”

In hindsight, she says, her request may have been presumptuous. “But Layla was willing to do it. She didn’t think that my request was out of line for the museum loan, and she made it work.”

It was a slow process. The impressive head of Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus remained in Laura’s home for three years. She was fond of him and nicknamed him Dennis. Finally, an agreement was reached. The bust was moved to the San Antonio Museum of Art where it could be seen and admired by Texans before being returned to Europe.

“When he left the house, I was crying,” Laura says. But she is grateful for her brush with history. “Everything happened the way it should happen.”

It was fortunate that the person who happened to find the bust had the knowledge to discern how special he was, the nous to return him to his rightful owners, and the ethical will to do so.

“I have thought, what if he was in someone’s backyard, and he was getting rained on all the time? Or a tree fell on him? I am glad that I was the one that rescued him.”

Stuff The British Stole Season 2 premiers on Monday 17 June at 8pm on ABC TV with all episodes available on ABC iview from launch.