Monday 3 December 2012

Turkey claims art restitution from the Louvre

Part of the Iznik ceramic tiles displayed in the Louvre
At the beginning of October, the Louvre opened a new Islamic wing displaying over 3,000 works, among them a wall of Ottoman Iznik ceramic tiles. Turkish officials claim that some of the tiles were stolen from the Piyale Pasha mosque in Istanbul at the end of the 19th  by a French collector and demand the panels  to be returned.

 An estimated eight panels were taken from the mosque: five have been located in various museums, and the remaining three could be the ones currently displayed in the Louvre. Turkish Minister of Culture, Ertugrul Günay - in Paris on Wednesday November 21, to sustain the city of Izmir’s place in the Universal Exhibition - also officially requested the return of the tiles to Turkey. Iznik is a town in western Turkey that was the center of ceramic production of the Ottoman Empire throughout the sixteenth century. The town experienced a burst of tile production beginning in the middle of this century that would result in extremely elaborate, high-quality tiles for important buildings

This is not the first time Turkey has requested the Louvre to return objects to them. In 2006, the Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister contacted the Louvre requesting sixty Iznik ceramic tiles from the tomb of Suleiman but such demand was dismissed. 

The case of the Louvre’s Iznik tiles show how restitution of artworks can be problematic. Requests for art restitution from major museums have become more frequent in recent years, and the case of the Iznik tiles is only one of many involving Turkey. In 2011, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston sent back a statue of the “weary Herakles,” and the Pergamon Museum in Berlin agreed to restitute a sphinx that has been there since 1915.

With reference to all international issues, there is no authority on the issue of cultural repatriation of art. In 1970, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) held a Convention on the means of prohibiting and preventing the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property. This Convention established numerous principles and standards of behavior, but none of them can be applied retroactively. States that have ratified the Convention are obliged, however, to recognize the rights of each other state “to facilitate recovery of such property by the State concerned in cases where it has been exported.”. Although the convention could not apply its post-1970 regulations to all art that has been dispersed throughout the world, the ratification implies respect for the principles being established and a pledge to honor them. France ratified the convention in 1970, and Turkey ratified it in 1981.

As to art restitution, on one hand, the recent movement towards repatriation has grown and  Unesco stresses on the importance of embracing cultural differences, attributing works of art with a specific value as contributing in a significant way to the culture of the country of origin.

On the other hand, such  practices are standards of behavior as opposed to ones enforceable by legal action.  Then, the purpose of a museum like the Louvre is to educate its visitors about different cultures, but this mission necessarily requires diversity in the origins of the objects in their collections. Finally, there is no final authority, and each request for cultural property restitution depends on the case and merely on the willingness of the parties to cooperate with one another.

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