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Posted : 2010-11-29 15:36
Updated : 2010-11-29 15:36

Return of looted artifacts needs careful diplomacy


Hubert Vedrine, former French foreign minister under President Francois Miterrand, talks to The Korea Times about how countries have been approaching resolving the contested ownership of looted artifacts.
/ Korea Times photo
by Shim Hyun-chul
By Kang Hyun-kyung

Top-notch, superior museums attract countless visitors from all across the globe every year thanks to their extensive showcases of diverse specimens and objects ranging from anthropology, zoology and historical scientific instruments.

What’s inside these special museums, the intricacies of national possessions however stand in contrast to the elegance in the presentation of these objects.

Contested ownership and the nation of origin of national artifacts often lead to lengthy diplomatic disputes.

Hubert Vedrine, a former French foreign minister (1997-2002), said that thousands of disputes concerning the return of cultural assets and archeological materials to the country of origin are underway everywhere in the world.

“In several countries, the disputes tend to take the form of a decades-long domestic debate between the conservatives in the culture industry and open-minded politicians,” he said in an interview with The Korea Times through an interpreter at a Seoul hotel last Wednesday.

Vedrine continued to say that conservatives tend to be reluctant in handing over cultural property which is under control of their government to the country of origin, and that their protest delays negotiations.

“Political leaders, who are under pressure for diplomatic disputes, strive to find the condition that can satisfy both of them.”

Vedrine made the remarks when asked to give his thoughts on the debate reportedly in full swing in France over President Nicolas Sarkozy’s recent agreement with President Lee Myung-bak over the return of the old Korean books, dubbed “Oegyujanggak.”



National identity

The old texts were looted by French troops back in 1866 after their invasion of this country.

South Korea has sought to retrieve the cultural property for many, many years.

Like South Korea, the effort of certain countries to get their artifacts back from museums in other countries is often entangled with issues of national identity.

Ethiopia, which retrieved the Axum obelisk from Italy years ago after a decades-long diplomatic dispute, sees the obelisk as a national symbol.

There is a similar case in Peru, too. The Latin American nation is now working closely with Yale University on an accord on terms of condition of the return of Machu Picchu archaeological materials from the United States.

South Korea’s efforts to retrieve its treasure from the museum in France bore fruit in 1993.

Then French President Francois Mitterrand initially agreed to return the cultural assets to Korea during the summit talks with then South Korean President Kim Young-sam.

17 years later, France kept the promise.

During the G20 summit held in Seoul in November, President Lee Myung-bak and Sarkozy signed the deal to return the old publications to Korea on lease. The two sides agreed to renew the contract every five years.

The bilateral agreement reportedly drew backlash from people in the culture industry in France.

Curators, cultural ministry officials and those engaged in the museum industry are discontent with the decision.

Despite this, Vedrine, who served as the presidential chief of staff for Mitterrand when the former French president agreed to return the royal books to Korea, praised Sarkozy for the bilateral accord.

“I think President Sarkozy did a good job in that he fulfilled France’s commitment made by his predecessor back in the early 1990s.”

Machu Picchu materials

Vedrine said the years-long negotiations between Yale and Peru over the Machu Picchu archaeological items is another example of a dispute over the transport of cultural property.

Peru and Yale were engaged in a dispute over Machu Picchu materials that were excavated by an American historian and sent to Yale University in the 1910s.

In a statement released on Nov. 21, Yale announced it would return to Peru some archaeological materials on display at its Peabody Museum of Natural History.

The university said it had reached an accord with Peru which is at the stage of being formalized.

“Under it, as an expression of good will and in recognition of the unique importance that Machu Picchu has come to play in the identity of the modern Peruvian nation, Yale will return, over the next two years, the archaeological materials,” the statement read.

Thomas Mattia, chief communications officer of Yale University, declined to comment in great detail on the issue of the contested ownership of the artifacts.

“The statement on our website covers our position at this time. You will also see from the site that many of the pieces we have are shards of broken objects,” Mattia said in an email interview with The Korea Times.

“I will note that we had negotiated an early agreement with the Peruvian authorities in 2007 and have always sought a settlement.”

The announcement on the accord came years after Yale was embroiled in a fight with the Peruvian government over the return of the archeological materials excavated by Yale historian Hiram Bingham III at Machu Picchu in the 1914 and 1915.

Bingham sent the materials to Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History for study and scientific research.

About a century later, the return of the artifacts became a dispute between Yale and Peru.

The Peruvian government launched a campaign to retrieve the archaeological materials which, the government perceived, were linked to its national identity after President Alejandro Toledo took office in 2001.

Toledo, the first indigenous president, had vowed to recover the treasures before he stepped down in July 2006.

The Peruvian government’s effort to get them back was an uphill battle as the Latin American nation and Yale showed deep disagreements over ownership of the materials.

In an op-ed published in the New York Times in February 2008, Elian Karp-Toledo, the wife of former president Toledo who participated in negotiations with the university over the artifacts, said Yale had refused to accept that Peru is the sole owner of the artifacts.

“I fail to understand the rationale for Yale to have any historical claim to the artifacts. Bingham had no authority to transfer ownership to begin with,” the former first lady of Peru said.

In November 2005, Peru threatened to sue Yale. Regarding ownership, Yale claimed that it has no legal obligation to return the Macchu Picchu materials to Peru.

The two sides also showed differences over the number of Machu Picchu materials.
Yale stated that the number is approximately 5,500 objects—5,415 lots and fragments plus 329 museum-quality objects.

The university said it grouped the fragments of a single object. For example, it continued to say that shards of a single ceramic utensil or bone fragments from a single human body were counted as a single lot.

Meanwhile, Peru claimed approximately 46,000 pieces.

After rounds of negotiations, the two sides signed an agreement in 2007. Under the deal, Yale and Peru committed to completing “a definitive agreement” that would provide Peru with legal title to all of the archaeological materials with Yale retaining certain temporary rights.

Axum obelisk

Laurent Vedrine, Vedrine’s first son, directed a film entitled “Axoum (2005),” which dealt with the transfer of the Axum obelisk from Italy to Ethiopia.

Italian troops looted the obelisk in 1937 when Benito Mussolini was in power and took it to Rome where it had remained until 2005.

People in Ethiopia reportedly regarded the obelisk as part of their national identity.

The monument was set in Axum when Ethiopia adopted Christianity in the 4th century. Driven by the strong historical meaning linked to its national symbol, for decades the Ethiopian government sought to bring it back home.

After a decades-long diplomatic dispute between Italy and Ethiopia, Ethiopian foreign minister Seyoum Mesfin and Italian foreign ministry undersecretary Alfredo Mantica finally signed the agreement to transport the 160-ton stele from Rome to the city of Axum in 2005.

“I understand that there was a huge debate in Italy over the return of the obelisk in the past. The plan to return the monument to Ethiopia was met with opposition in Italy among conservatives,” Vedrine said.



세계는 지금 문화재 반환 분쟁 중

프랑스 정부의 외규장각 한국 반환 결정을 계기로 주목을 받은 국가간 문화재 반환을 둘러싼 외교적 갈등은 비단 한국에만 국한된 일은 아니라고 프랑스의 전 외교부장관은 밝혔다.

외규장각 반환을 처음 합의한 미테랑 대통령 집권시기에 비서실장을 역임하기도 한 베르딘 전 프랑스 외교장관은 전세계적으로 국가간 혹은 기관간 문화재 반환을 둘러싼 갈등은 “수천건에 이를 것”이라고 밝혔다.

사르코지 대통령이 이명박 대통령과 G20 기간 중 가진 정상회담을 통해 반환을 합의한 것에 대해서는 “전직 대통령이 약속한 것을 이행했다는 점에서 매우 잘한 일”이라고 평가했다.

미국의 예일대학은 대학 박물관에서 소장하고 있던 페루의 마추피추 유물을 둘러싸고 과거몇년간 페루정부와 심한 갈등을 보여왔다. 오랜 기간의 갈등을 봉합하고 양측은 올해 11월에 반환에 관한 합의점을 찾았고 현재 문안작업을 진행하고 있다.

페루의 반환 요구에 대해 예일 대학측은 그동안 마추피추 발굴 당시에 현지법과 국제법 그리고 미국법에 모두 저촉되지 않는 적법한 소유였다고 주장하며 마찰을 보이다가 최근에 합의에 이른 것.

이외에 이디오피아의 오벨리스크 반환을 둘러싼 이태리와 이디오피아의 수십년에 걸친 갈등은 지난 2005년 양측이 이전합의를 함에 따라 반환하면서 외교적 갈등을 봉합한 바 있다.

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