Book Arouses Return of Looted Relics
By Chung Ah-young
In February, two looted Chinese relics were sold at the French house of auction giant Christie’s for 14 million euros ($17.92 million). But China had tried to dissuade Christie’s from auctioning the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) bronze rabbit and rat head sculptures, because they were looted from Yuanmingyuan, the Old Summer Palace, by Anglo-French allied forces during the Second Opium War in 1860.
The case has renewed debate over the jurisdiction of “stolen” relics mostly taken during the period of Western expansion.
At this point, “Cleopatra’s Needle” written by former ambassador Kim Kyeong-im is quite relevant to explore the stories of looted treasures from around the world mostly by European powers.
Numerous countries including Egypt, China, Greece and also Korea are mourning the loss of priceless heritages.
Then, why do such looters refuse to return acquired relics to the original owners? The retrieval of cultural treasures is one of the world’s most thorny issues as it involves political, economic, cultural and international relations and usually takes years of strenuous and extensive efforts.
No country, however, is free from this tough issue because almost every country might be either a looter or a victim.
Such nations as the United Kingdom and France have stuck to the policy that cultural heritages don’t belong to a specific nation but to all humanity as a universal value as shown in the Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums adopted by the world’s leading museums in 2002.
Also, they argue that it is not pillage but an attempt to protect the relics from danger and destruction. The author says this is the typical logic behind the rejection of returning such treasures.
Wartime looting has, from ancient times, been a symbol of victory. According to the book, cultural heritages mostly belong to the creators or the countries where they were first discovered. Particularly in the case of ancient relics whose origins can be ambiguous, they usually belong to the territory that holds the relics.
However, there is no set rule to legally force the return of looted antiquities to their original sites. There is now only a customary law banning the illegal traffic in archaeological, artistic and ethnic objects.
Historically, Korea was frequently plundered by foreign powers including Japan. The Joseon Kingdom’s Uigwe (Royal Protocols) seized by France is just a case in point.
The issue of retrieving these relics only surfaced around the early 1990s in Korea as then French President Francois Mitterrand made remarks over the possibility of their return during a visit to Seoul to export the French high-speed TGV train.
France won the bid and the two governments have since undertaken several rounds of negotiations on the repatriation of the royal protocols but any conclusion is still up in the air.
Kim, who has served for 30 years on the diplomatic scene, points out the Korean government’s incompetence and ill-preparedness.
“It was too naive for the government to believe the counterpart’s negotiation cards in exchange for the TGV export. It remained dubious why the government didn’t take any action to ensure the return of the property before accepting a deal,” she says.
Most of some 6,000 volumes of the books from the Ganghwa archive, called the Oegyujanggak, established by King Jeongjo in 1781, were burned when French troops attacked the island in 1866. Only about 340 volumes and some maps were carried away during their retreat.
The plundered books and documents were left unnoticed at the French National Library and erroneously classified under the Chinese collection for more than 90 years until Dr. Park Byeong-seon, a Korean librarian working for the library, found the Korean palace documents from the Joseon period in 1975.
The Korean government didn’t know the actual state of the documents and sat at the negotiation table armed with just the research by Dr. Park from the 1980s. “Without knowing what treasures our counterparts were holding, we just reiterated `Give it back.’ So failure was a foregone conclusion,” she says. An actual inspection of the ancient documents only began in 2002, which then revealed just what the relics were.
To restore the stolen artifacts, the author says the government should approach the issue with proper reasoning and logic.
The documents are treasures that should be given back to their original owners. Not only until the 1815 Congress of Vienna did countries in Europe generally agree that taking war booty was a crime. The principle has contributed to the international customary law, which bans the pillage of cultural treasures. However, there is no consensus on when this law was exactly enacted.
But there is some rationale for the return of the documents ― the reunion of dispersed relics. The return movement for the Parthenon Marbles, or the Elgin Marbles, a collection of classical Greek sculptures and inscriptions, focuses on “reuniting the Parthenon sculptures for the unity of the monument” to allow visitors to better appreciate them as a whole. Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799 to 1803, obtained ambiguous permission from the authorities there to remove pieces from the Acropolis.
In the same way, the Joseon Kingdom’s old documents are also an inseparable part of the royal collection. It is also necessary for other royal documents scattered around the world including Japan and the United States to be considered thus.
Another rationale is that the looted documents are only meaningful to Korean scholars. No research was conducted on the Korean royal documents in France because of the lack of bibliographical resources and no universal value placed on them.
Korea has the facilities equipped with state-of-the-art technology for the protection and preservation of the old documents, which runs counter to the French claim of keeping them under the name of “safe preservation.”
The writer also criticizes Gregory Henderson (1922-1988), a former Foreign Service Officer and a specialist on Korea, whose collection includes crucial Korean ceramics. They range from various eras ― the Three Kingdoms, and the Goryeo and Joseon Kingdoms, dating from the 1st to the 19th centuries. The collection carries significance in that they show a difference from Chinese ceramics.
“The collection is of comprehensive quality and quantity tracking through Korean history and is of the highest value. It is seen not sporadic and casual collection, but simply the removal of a certain part of Korean heritage,” she says.
Henderson stayed in Korea just for six years and bought the enormous collection at very cheap prices as the country was poor at that time, using his diplomatic privilege as was the case with the Elgin Marbles, the book says.
But UNESCO Convention Article 9 provides for import and export controls in cases where cultural patrimony is at risk of pillage.
“Sometimes, diplomats who collect artworks from the countries they stayed are respected for their love for the artworks, but excessive collection is seen as only the deeds of money,” she says.
Currently, Greece, Egypt, Nigeria and Ethiopia are stepping up their efforts to regain looted artworks. International support for the return of the Elgin Marbles is gradually heightening.
“Until recently, the return of treasures reflected the one-side positions of the nations that claimed them. But restoration is gradually gaining general international support. Therefore, they should emphasize the importance and functions of museums,” she says.
“Whoever owns the relics, the famous artworks are associated with their creators. The Rosetta Stone written in an ancient Egyptian language is a symbol of Egyptian history and culture. The fact that it is in the British Museum also shows it’s inseparable from British imperialism,” Kim says.
The author served as Korea’s ambassador to the Republic of Tunisia, the second woman ambassador in the history of Korean foreign diplomacy and also head of the Cultural Affairs Bureau at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
She was the first woman to pass the foreign diplomat examination in 1978, and served as the first woman director-general at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, setting a record in the history of female civil servants.