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  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: June 2012

5 - Cultural Material: Rectification, Criminal Justice, and Dispute Resolution



Claims for the return or restitution of cultural heritage are of central importance on both domestic and international levels of cultural heritage law. On the domestic level, for example, the historical and cultural identity of tribal and other indigenous groups may be at stake in efforts to reclaim significant artifacts from museums, art galleries, and private collections. On the international level, the recovery of stolen cultural material, whose value is estimated to be more than $3 billion annually, requires substantial diligence by customs officials and cooperation among governments, private institutions, and individuals.

Obligations to return cultural material to territories of origin date back at least to Greek and Roman times. Until recently, those obligations were addressed almost exclusively to military-related problems of plunder, the spoils of warfare, and occupation. For example, the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, followed by the reparation provisions of the Treaties of Versailles and Saint-Germain after the First World War, underscored the illegality of military plunder and articulated the remedy for victim states. Twenty-five years later, during the Second World War, a leading scholar, urging moderation in dealing with the Germans after the war, referred to the Treaty of Saint Germain. Its provisions for the return of historical and cultural material took account, on a reciprocal basis, of the cultural heritage of both the victor, Italy, and the loser, Austria:

[The Treaty] stated, however incompletely, the reasonable principle that historical material belongs, wherever possible, to the land of its birth; and though it might prove highly impracticable to carry this principle through to its ultimate conclusion, the mere fact of its enunciation on reciprocal terms, while the smoke of the battle and revenge still clung to Europe, was a noble signal of growth.

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