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Will European museums return Southeast Asia's 'stolen' artifacts?

French President Emmanuel Macron has pledged to 'do everything possible' to return the cultural heritage that colonial France had looted

French President Emmanuel Macron has pledged to 'do everything possible' to return the cultural heritage that colonial France had looted

During Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet's state visit to France in January, President Emmanuel Macron pledged support for returning more Khmer artifacts and for technical assistance to expand the National Museum of Cambodia.

Macron is often cited as the first European leader to lend a voice to long-standing demands from Asian states for the return of their antiquities after he gave a speech in 2017 in which he said that he would "do everything possible" to return the cultural heritage that colonial France had looted.

A few months earlier, the Musee Guimet in Paris, France's national museum of Asian art, had agreed to return the head and body of a seventh-century Khmer statue, which had been taken in the 1880s, to Cambodia on a five-year loan agreement.

In 2017, Berlin followed suit and agreed to return to the southern African nation of Namibia artifacts taken during a genocide in the early 20th century.

Last July, two museums in the Netherlands, including the Rijksmuseum, handed back hundreds of artifacts to Indonesia and Sri Lanka, former Dutch colonies.

"The objects were wrongfully brought to the Netherlands during the colonial period, acquired under duress or by looting," the Dutch government said in a statement.

The "Naturalis" natural history museum in the Dutch city of Leiden in 2022 sent back the remains of 41 prehistoric humans, which were taken in the late nineteenth century from an archaeological site in northern Malaysia of a village that could be 5,000 and 6,000 years old.

Museums mull return of looted artifacts

In January, the German and French governments agreed to spend €2.1 million ($2.27 million) on a review of African heritage objects in their national museums' collections, and there are rumors that there could be a similar scheme for Asian artifacts.

A new wave of calls for the return of stolen antiquities began in December when the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York said it would return 14 sculptures to Cambodia and two to Thailand that it had procured from the British art dealer Douglas Latchford, who was charged with trafficking looted antiquities in 2019.

Brad Gordon, a legal advisor to Cambodia's Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and who played a prominent role in the return of the artifacts last year, said that he is in contact with museums in Britain and Paris about their extensive Cambodian antiquities collections.

Several Austrian museums have also asked his team to review their collections, and a "major museum" in Berlin has also been in contact.

"We know of Cambodian artifacts in Germany, France, Italy and Scandinavia, which we have added to our database and are interested in learning more about," Gordon said.

"In addition," he added, "we are compiling information on a number of private collections across Europe. We are in the survey mode at this time and welcome any enquiries from museums and collectors."

Several museums contacted by DW refused to comment.

What's the legal basis for returning artifacts?

The 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property is the principal legal source when a country makes a claim to have its possessions returned.

But this convention "does not apply retrospectively, so it does not include the peak phase of colonialism," according to a statement by the German Lost Art Foundation, an NGO.

"What is more, a very large number of countries would need to be involved in any such agreement: Ever since the 15th century, almost every region of the world has been part of colonial structures, at least for a certain period of time," it added.

"As such, cultural objects and collections brought to Europe originate from a variety of different acquisition contexts, each of which potentially involves specific forms of handling."

As a result, some European governments have proposed national laws to determine the fate of artifacts in their museums.

Last year, the Austrian government said it would propose legislation governing the restitution of objects in national museums acquired by colonialism by March 2024.

At the time, the Weltmuseum in Vienna admitted that many of its 200,000 objects might fit this bill, including antiquities from Southeast Asia.

However, similar laws proposed in other countries have run aground because of political opposition.

Meanwhile, European museums have been reluctant to return some of their more valuable collections.

Despite Dutch museums returning hundreds of artifacts to Indonesia last year, it refused to hand over the remains of the "Java Man", the first known fossil of the Homo Erectus species discovered during the colonial era.

But the return of artifacts taken because of colonization can provide significant soft-power benefits for European countries, especially when they are trying to expand their influence in regions such as Southeast Asia, scholars say.

"For Western governments, the repatriation of artifacts provides an ample opportunity to rebrand," said Cameron Cheam Shapiro, an analyst who published an academic paper last year on the relationship between antiquities repatriations and soft power in Cambodia.

"These repatriations are a gesture of good faith, a commitment to international law, a symbol of their willingness to recognize and correct past wrongs, and a stepping stone towards better relations with foreign governments and peoples," he added.

Netherlands apologizes for role in historic slave trade

A draft resolution presented to the European Parliament's development committee in December claimed that the EU has made "no concerted efforts to recognize, address and rectify the lasting effects of European colonialism on social and international inequities," while also calling for the creation of a permanent EU body on restorative justice.

But some European governments have explicitly sought to tie the return of stolen artifacts to their remorse for historical colonization.

Last year, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte formally apologized for the Netherlands' occupation of Indonesia a month before two Dutch museums returned looted artifacts to Jakarta.

"It's a moment to look to the future," Gunay Uslu, the Dutch secretary of state for culture and media, said at the time, adding that the return will engender "a period of closer cooperation with Indonesia" on research and academic exchanges.

According to Shapiro, if European museums were to return more of their collections, it would "represent a monumental step towards a larger soft power strategy in the region, especially where there seems to be residual anti-colonial sentiment".

However, he added, if Europeans want to garner the same praise as the United States in Southeast Asia for returning artifacts, they will have to "make a more public display of their efforts and be willing to cooperate" with the region's governments in their investigations.

Edited by: Keith Walker