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Possession Seems to be 9/10ths of the Law

by Jonathan van Bilsen

You may have read in the news this week, the National Museum of Scotland is repatriating a looted totem pole to the Nisga’a Nation of British Columbia. The memorial pole was stolen by Marius Barbeau, an anthropologist, in 1929. He removed the 11-metre red cedar pole, which was hand-carved in the 1860s, and sold it to the Scottish museum.

I have witnessed stolen artifacts in museums, all over the world. 259 items looted from Troy, often referred to as "Trojan Gold", have been held in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, since 1945. American archaeologist, Hiram Bingham, the first westerner to find Machu Picchu, sold thousands of priceless objects he found, to Yale University. Even the beard, which supports the head of Egypt’s Sphinx, sits in the British Museum in London.

It has always been stated, by the looters, no doubt, these items should be in large museums, for us to see. Besides, many countries of origin cannot properly care for them. This however, is no longer the case.

There is a growing debate, in the global community, surrounding the repatriation of artefacts which have been stolen from archaeological sites. Many argue these treasures should be returned to their countries of origin, while others believe they should remain in museums and collections around the world. While the issue is multifaceted, there are compelling reasons why stolen artefacts should be repatriated.

First and foremost, the historic and cultural value of artifacts to their countries of origin, cannot be overstated. Artifacts are not merely objects; they are integral parts of a nation's history, identity, and heritage. They provide a tangible connection to ancient civilizations, and their achievements. Repatriating stolen artifacts is a way to rectify past injustices, and restore a sense of national pride and identity.

Moreover, repatriation can contribute to the preservation and protection of these artifacts. Many countries lack the resources and expertise to adequately care for their archaeological treasures. By returning stolen artifacts, wealthier nations with advanced conservation techniques should assist in their preservation. This ensures their long-term survival, preventing further deterioration or destruction.

Additionally, the ethical implications of holding stolen artifacts cannot be disregarded. Most of these items were illicitly obtained, often through looting and illegal excavations. By allowing these treasures to remain in museums and private collections, we risk promoting and perpetuating the black market trade.

Many nations have endured a long history of colonization and exploitation, often resulting in the pillaging of their cultural treasures. Returning stolen artifacts is an important step toward acknowledging past wrong doings, and promoting dialogue and understanding between nations.

Lastly, the educational and economic benefits of repatriation cannot be overlooked. Returning stolen artifacts provides an opportunity for local communities to engage with their own history, as well as generate tourism and economic opportunities.

Jonathan van Bilsen is a television host, award winning photographer, published author, columnist and keynote speaker. Watch his show, ‘Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel’, on RogersTV, the Standard's Website or YouTube.

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