The Legal Ownership Status of Looted Artefacts

Posted 15 September 2017

Seven years ago, a rare 2nd century Roman sarcophagus was found in a Geneva Freeport. The sarcophagus, one of only four of its kind, was looted from an archaeological site in Turkey in the 1970s and was smuggled to Geneva to be kept in the Freeport until it could be sold. This week, after a long legal battle between Switzerland and Turkey, the sarcophagus is being returned to Turkey where it will be displayed in the Archaeological Museum in Antalya.

As the original looter of the sarcophagus died in 1998, there was no possibility of a criminal prosecution. In bringing a restitution case, a major legal hurdle for Turkey was proving that the sarcophagus originated there. This was eventually proven with the help of archaeologists, scientists and prosecutors representing the Turkish government.

Another similar but unsuccessful case involves the Parthenon marbles stolen from Greece, half of which sit in the British Museum. The return of the Parthenon marbles as a priceless artefact representing Greece’s cultural history has been called for by Greece through diplomatic channels since 1833. Yet when Greece turned to litigation by bringing the case to the European Court of Human Rights, judges refused to hear the ‘merits of the case’, stating that it happened before the UK had signed the human rights convention.

Museums around the world are filled with pillaged, stolen or looted works not from the country in which they are displayed. The recent return of the sarcophagus demonstrates the importance that a singular artefact can have for a particular culture, and could raise the question as to whether Australia should call for the return of Aboriginal art being held overseas. The Dja Dja Wurrung barks produced in Victoria in 1854 are currently also held in the British Museum. While the bark was not stolen, it was handed over in a situation of duress. In 2004 the Dja Dja Wurrung Elders called for the return of the barks to Australia under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984.

While in most circumstances it is unlikely looted artefacts will be returned, the Roman sarcophagus case does raise some interesting issues about the role legal remedies can play in ensuring the return of these artefacts.