It remains to be seen whether art lovers will soon be able to enjoy the Rosetta Stone not in London but in Cairo. According to looted technical expert Jos van Beurden, it is impossible to determine if Hawass’ call had any chance of success.
“The call to get the Rosetta Stone back is a long way back. But there are also more things Egypt would want to get back. Think of the obelisk in Paris or the famous bust of Nefertiti on display in Berlin,” says Boers. In any case, the British Museum has not yet responded.
The key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs
It reads the Rosetta Stone’s wanderings as an adventurous story: Napoleon’s forces captured the stone in 1799 at the site of Rashid al-Masri (present-day al-Rashid). When the French surrendered two years later in the port city of Alexandria, the stone reached the hands of the British, who shipped the piece back to Britain.
The stone is now on display as one of the masterpieces of the British Museum in London. Granite stone appears from the second century BC thanks to the priests of the pharaoh. The Rosetta Stone is considered very special because, in addition to hieroglyphs, it also contains translations, including in ancient Greek. This was an important key for scientists to decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.
With the support of well-known Egyptian thinkers, the influential archaeologist Hawass has now begun to petition to return the Rosetta Stone to the hands of the Egyptians. “This issue is unstoppable,” he told The National.
In recent years, debate has erupted over the return of looted art. As a result, more and more European countries with looted art are responding to calls to return looted art to its countries of origin. According to Van Beurden, there is a cultural shift.
Countless Claims From Nigeria
In recent years, for example, Nigeria has submitted claims to British and German museums to restore bronze statues. Because what the Rosetta Stone is for Egypt, the so-called Benin Bronze is for Nigeria. It is about art from the former Kingdom of Benin (in present-day Nigeria) that ended up in the museums of the former colonialists.
Several British and German museums have already indicated that they want to return Benin Bronze to Nigeria. Germany wants to give away more than a thousand pieces of art. It was recently announced that Britain’s Horniman Museum will return 72 bronze statues.
However, this does not mean that all of these art pieces have all been returned to their country of origin. “Nigeria wants to build a new museum where Benin bronzes will be displayed, but it can’t be all there,” says Van Burden. That is why agreements can sometimes be made that the pictures will become the property of Nigeria, but they remain on display in European museums.
Dutch museums also possess 114 bronze objects from Benin, which are seen as looted art. Both the museums and the former Cabinet have indicated that they want to return the looted artwork, but so far this has not happened.
A century of (talking about) redemption
States must first file a claim, which can take some time, according to Van Beurden. Germany and the United Kingdom have already obtained these claims from Nigeria, but the Netherlands has not yet. “The Netherlands may be next,” says van Beurden.
According to him, the return of looted art to Nigeria is at the top of the list of priorities. In addition, the Netherlands can also expect claims from Indonesia and the Congo, among other countries.
According to Van Burden, given the research and policy decision-making, it will be a lot of time before the response becomes a reality: “It is sometimes said that this is the century of compensation. I prefer to say that it is the century of talk about response.”
Van Burden supports the return of looted art. “Financial interests sometimes play a role, because they attract tourists. But the most important thing is that with compensation there is recognition of injustice. This also ensures an improvement in the relationship between the former colonizers and the colonial countries.”
Van Beurden sees the important German Museum Humboldt Forum quickly taking a more positive view of the return of looted art. “The British Museum is one of the most conservative museums in the world when it comes to reparations,” says Van Beurden. “But there are also messy things.”
According to Van Beurden, just because countries claim ownership of only some artworks, this does not mean that European museums are slowly but surely “emptying”. In the case of the Rosetta Stone, a “perfect copy” could also be made in consultation with Egypt, so that the stone could be seen in both London and Cairo.
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