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Repatriation, Recovery, Return

Repatriation, recovery, and return: how do they differ from one another? Dr Donna Yates introduces Week 3 and defines how we'll use these terms.
Welcome to Week 3 in Antiquities Trafficking and Art Crime. In Week 1, we discussed how ancient objects are looted, smuggled and sold. In Week 2, we explored how art is stolen, faked, and vandalised. This week, we will tackle our most challenging topic yet, giving cultural objects back. For clarity’s sake, we’re going to use three terms this week, repatriation, recovery, and return. We’ll use working definitions for each term. However, these are complicated topics. And the definitions we will use are by no means universal. Indeed, people use these words in various ways. There is overlap. And at times, the terms are interchangeable.
When we use the term repatriation this week, we mean the process of giving back cultural objects that were taken from indigenous groups during times of occupation, colonialism, and other dark periods of racism or domination. Many of these items are sacred to living people. At times, we’re talking about human remains. The term recovery this week will refer to the restitution of objects to their legal owner or legal heir. In other words, the owner recovers what they once owned and what was taken from them. This week, we will talk specifically about the recovery of artworks that were illegally or unethically taken from Jewish families during the Second World War. Finally, we have returned.
There are many, many other reasons why cultural objects are returned to an individual, group, or government. We consider return to be a catch-all phrase for that. In thinking about return, we’ll discuss two sticky situations. One in which a country paid millions for the return of cultural objects that everyone knew to be stolen and another which has been controversial, divisive, and defining for over 200 years. I know it seems like giving back stolen cultural property should be straightforward. However, there’s a complicated legal and ethical web in place here. For example, how far back do you go when returning a cultural object?
If you remember, in Week 1, we discussed the Euphronios Krater, the famous “hot pot” that was looted from an Italian tomb and smuggled to the United States. But in ancient times, that pot was actually made in Greece and sent to Italy as an object of trade. The artist, Euphronios, was Greek, and the pot is an object of Greek art. Should the krater have gone back to Italy where it was buried or to Greece where it was made? It was sent to Italy. In a way, that example is pretty easy compared to other issues of return. Other cases are painful and hurtful, and those cases can drag on for years.
We won’t be offering any solid answers to the problems associated with navigating the stormy seas of cultural property return. But together, we will ask the right questions.

The terms repatriation, recovery, and return are often used interchangeably, but should they be? Dr Donna Yates introduces Week 3 and defines how we’ll be using these terms this week.

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