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Preservation or Plunder? - Museum Collection Sources and Attribution

By OGP Reporters / Members of OGP Collectors' Club Contribute File Photos

Oh Good Party

We contend that museums shouldn't promote illegal trade because they are actually places where human science, technology, art, and culture are preserved, maintained, and shared. In addition, we contend that museums should be places where the public has a right to learn about actual historical events. The majority of the collections in museums today, with the exception of those earlier contentious collections, come from legal purchases and private donations.

The source and attribution of collections has long been a controversial topic in collecting circles. A prestigious museum exhibition catalog, or a reputation for excellence in auction houses, would not attempt to place violations with its own reputation.

On April 24, 1863, Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, signed General Order No. 100, also known as the Lieber Code. This was a written regulation on the treatment of prisoners of war, enemy-owned property, and "battlefield spoils," with Articles 35 and 36 specifying the protection of "classical works of art, libraries, and scientific collections" whose ultimate ownership was to be determined by peaceful negotiation. This decree formed the basis of the 1907 Hague Convention, which prohibited plundering during war, and in practice the defeated state had little influence in demanding the return of war booty.

In 1900, looting art in other countries began to become unacceptable. In "The China Collectors: America's Century-Long Hunt for Asian Art Treasures," Washington Post contributors Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac point out that in 1860, the British and French were still able to raise auction prices by claiming that the loot "came from the Yuanmingyuan". In several other books, including “The Dust of Empire” (2003), “Tournament of Shadows” (1999) and “Kingmakers” (2008), when Western powers become involved in the political and economic affairs of Central Asian countries, including Afghanistan and Iran.

After 1900, although looting continued, the provenance of objects began to be obscured, the provenance of loot denied, and prominent institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York began to publicly state their refusal to accept looted objects.

As one of the world's largest repositories of priceless artifacts, the British Museum is both loved for its preservation of these treasures of the ancient world and criticized for hoarding irreplaceable artifacts from other countries.

For example, in 2004, a dispute arose between the British Museum and the Royal Botanic Gardens over the loan of a rare collection of early bark carvings to the Melbourne Museum for exhibition, but the Australian Aborigines used the Aboriginal Heritage Protection Act to claim ownership of the artifacts in Australia and forbid their return to the British collection.

“Because it’s our inheritance. They belong to my people. And they have been denied to us. They are a direct link to our ancestors. They are for me and for my children and my grandchildren. And I’m not going to be around for long, so we want them back.”

This practice by the Aboriginal people of Australia has shocked the museums concerned and at the same time undermined future opportunities for museums to borrow objects from outside or to exchange them. We are opposed to radical ways to achieve a goal, but we can also find that conflicts over the right to belong to cultural objects have become visible.

In a seminar organised by the Greek Orthodox community of Melbourne, historian and university lecturer Gary Foley again attacked the museum, drawing comparisons between its position on the demanded return of Indigenous Australian artefacts and that of the Parthenon marbles. He declared: "Colonialism gave rise to the British Museum. 100 years ago, those concepts gave rise to the rest of the modern world. They lack authority in the contemporary world. That's how easy it is.

Under the guarantee of the 2013 Protection of Cultural Objects on Loan Act, which legally prohibits indigenous people from filing restitution claims.

Patty Gerstenblith, a cultural heritage expert, relates stories of plunderers in China walking around with auction-house catalogs to determine what artifacts they should target to bring in the most money. Art museums, meanwhile, tell of curators spending months tracking down ownership records for potential acquisitions and trying to verify if documents are legitimate. In fact, a lot of collectors have had to shell out a load of money to purchase those stolen items through auction houses in a legal manner.

There has never been a more heated discussion about provenance, or the history of an artwork's ownership, among archaeologists and lawyers, collectors and curators, museum directors and donors, nations and cultural groups. A former American antiquities curator is accused of knowingly purchasing stolen artefacts, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has agreed to return ancient objects to Italy, and museums are still dealing with allegations that Nazis stole artwork up to 80 years ago. The discussion touches on topics like cultural heritage, history, the academic value of archaeology versus the aesthetic value of art, a web of international laws and political motivations, and contemporary geographic borders that don't always correspond to boundaries of ancient civilizations.

Of course, the owners and heirs of these relics have the absolute right to recover them. However, once all the relics have been returned, the British Museum will be empty.

The most influential Czech writer of the 20th century, Karel Čapek, wrote in his Travels in England: "England, being a less creative country, endeavored to collect treasures from abroad. From the Acropolis came wall carvings, from Egypt came porphyry and granite giants, from Assyria came shallow reliefs, from the Yucatan peninsula came knobby clay fired statues, from Japan came smiling Buddhas, wood carvings and lacquerware, and from all continents and colonies came all kinds of works of art, ironwork, textiles, glassware, vases, snuff boxes, books, statues, paintings, enamel work, inlaid precious metal desks, Saracen swords, and other treasures, probably everything of some value from all over the world was brought to England."

Since the predecessor of the museum dates back to the 3rd century B.C. in the Egyptian port of Alexandria called the Mouseion, its status is equivalent to that of a modern cultural institution such as an institute. It is believed that Ptolemy I or his son Ptolemy II founded this institution, which included the famous Library of Alexandria. "Literally meaning "throne of the muses," the Mouseion was a place of study and exchange for artists, thinkers and scholars of music, poetry, philosophy and many other disciplines. In the early modern period (1400-1800), the term "museum" referred to the "curiosity cabinets" owned by monarchs, nobles, and the Church - private collections that were not open to the public, but merely served as proof of the owner's wealth and knowledge to the high society. In 1743, the art-loving Florentine Medici family was the first to dedicate a private collection to the state, with some of their paintings on display in the Palazzo degli Uffizi in Florence as early as 1582, the Uffizi is now one of the world's most famous art museums. The Medici family of Florence was the first to dedicate a private collection to the state.

The public started to feel a strong need to appreciate art in the 17th century, and the idea of the public museum started to take shape. The British Museum, founded in 1759, and the Louvre Museum, founded in 1793, are two of the oldest and largest museums in the world. Both were established in the second half of the 18th century. The latter was transformed from a palace to a museum by decree of the National Assembly after the French Revolution, where precious treasures confiscated from the clergy and nobility were publicly displayed.

The Louvre is possibly a more blatant illustration of the logic of museum colonialism than the British Museum is. Napoleon committed the largest art theft in modern history in the decades after the Louvre was established when he used military conquest to seize and fill the museum with priceless works of art. The First French Emperor regarded himself as the liberator of an oppressed civilization and professed to have "great" artistic ideals. He desired to gather priceless works of art from all over the world and put them on display for the benefit of all. The French at the time believed they were the best judges of and guardians of looted art due to their superior artistic taste.

The British Museum is referred to as a "encyclopaedic museum," but they are obviously similar. Similarly, foreign nations provide the majority of its collections. The British Museum is also used to receiving requests from other nations.

Since 1925, Greece has frequently appealed to the British Museum for the return of the Parthenon Marbles. Also, the country that has taken the strongest stance on the return of cultural heritage in recent years is Turkey, whose Ministry of Culture has publicly claimed ownership of Byzantine works of art (despite the fact that they were created a thousand years before the establishment of the Turkish Republic) and has suspended loans to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre and the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

Although Western museums frequently point out that such nationalist demonstrations lack historical foundation and falsely situate culture within the constrictive framework of the nation, Western encyclopaedic museums do feel the pressure to redefine themselves in the postcolonial era. The British Museum's directors and curators noticed a tense relationship between general world history and British history when they reimagined the galleries in the 1990s. They realised that in order to find a new narrative for the collection and to rethink what it meant to be "British" in the postcolonial era, the British Museum had to do both.

Consequently, the British Museum is described as an in the 21st century "museum of the world" whose holdings "have a global pedigree and are accessible to world citizens". To fulfil its mission of preserving and promoting the arts, the British Museum regularly arranges various types of relics loans, touring exhibitions, and cultural exchanges "Show the world to the world" to viewers.

Former British Museum director Neil MacGregor once stated in an interview with Lifeweek that the issue that divides museums and countries of origin of objects is whether those objects should be shared internationally or kept in their country of origin. He believes that the British Museum's mission is to encourage reflection on shared history by educating the public about the global interconnectedness of cultures through the use of the museum's collection of artefacts.

The primary justification given by museums in the past for refusing to accept the return of artwork and artefacts was that this cultural heritage should be available to tourists from around the world and that museums in developing nations are not only inaccessible but also not the most up-to-date. Because London is one of the most visited cities in the world, in theory, more people will go to the British Museum and learn about the various cultures that exist, which will then inspire them to travel and likely visit provenance countries.

But in reality, this statement is not fair.

if they weren't ever acquired violently, can you offer evidence that those trophies were obtained legally? Or if developed nations also had excellent museums, would you really return them there? Or do you genuinely believe that it is simple for those who must travel great distances to visit your museum and view the artefacts of their own people? To make matters worse, obtaining a visa is actually required in order to travel to the UK, in addition to paying for expensive travel expenses and other fees along the way.

Yes, these artefacts are in danger of being lost forever without the help of archaeologists, looters, and museums. We consider museums to be excellent antiquity conservators because of this. But does this give them privilege?

No, we don't think so.

The criminals who looted the relics did not do so with the intention of "putting it in a museum", but for make quick money. Yes, we're all in agreement that the relic should be in a museum, but just as collectors don't purchase objects with a dubious provenance, museums cannot support criminal activity. To never aid in the sale of stolen goods is the collector's fundamental principle.

Maybe you think — without Museums, those relics in developing countries would have been lost to the sands of times and even destroyed.


The Koh-i-Noor diamond, once the largest diamond in the world and weighing 105.6 carats, is one of the most well-known examples. This diamond, which was originally from India, was later taken as war loot by numerous nations, including Iran and Afghanistan. After being taken by the British forcibly, it eventually returned to Sikh hands in India before being taken by force by the British, where it now sits in the Queen's crown. When questioned about it, Queen Elizabeth II asserted that since the diamond had changed hands so frequently, Britain had an equal claim to it.

We contend that museums shouldn't promote illegal trade because they are actually places where human science, technology, art, and culture are preserved, maintained, and shared. In addition, we contend that museums should be places where the public has a right to learn about actual historical events. The majority of the collections in museums today, with the exception of those earlier contentious collections, come from legal purchases and private donations. Regarding the origin of museum collections that are acquired, legal restrictions apply in the majority of nations. A Chinese museum regulation, for instance, Article 21: "Museums may acquire collections by purchase, accept donations, exchange according to law and other laws and administrative regulations, and shall not acquire collections of unknown or illegal origin." Therefore, if the museum is not clear about the source of the collection and freely accept some of the collection through smuggling, tomb raiding, theft and other illegal sources, "this is undoubtedly to induce or encourage the connivance of cultural relics criminal activities, so that the museum has become the museum of cultural relics crime pinning place."


Some collectors have consulted OGP regarding donations; they hope to be able to offer part of their lifetime collection for sale and part for donation to the museum. We are aware that you struggle with a number of collection-related issues, but selling a collection is not particularly challenging as long as the items comply with the requirements, in contrast to donating, which is not. If you have a collection-related need, we would be happy to talk with you about it since the donation process for museums is more intricate.


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