The Great Giveback

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In recent years, nearly 1 million ancient artifacts have embarked on something of a reverse migration: a journey home, to the place from which they were wrongfully removed.

This journey — usually referred to as the repatriation of looted antiquities — includes the transfer of many of the most important objects to survive from the ancient world. The economic value given to these objects by the art market is well over USD$1 billion, as we’ll show below. Their archeological value, while diminished by looting, remains immeasurable. But their symbolic power is even greater.

After centuries of collecting, we’re witnesses to the beginning of a cultural inflection point. Objects brought to the Global North – often through looting, theft or other coercive means – have begun flow in reverse, back to their countries of origin. 

The reasons for these returns are complex and intertwined. They include a reckoning with a long history of colonialism, which built the great European collections and still inspires collecting at institutions elsewhere. Communities around the globe are reclaiming their ancient culture as part of a broader quest for identity, restitution and revitalization.    

Couple that with growing attention from law enforcement and journalists, who have repeatedly uncovered evidence that many of these artifacts are the product of a transnational crime: antiquities trafficking is often intertwined with other crimes such as smuggling, tax fraud, money laundering and the funding of organized crime and extremist groups.

Taken together, these returning emissaries mark a dramatic shift in how our own views are changing on questions of ownership and identity. Yet somehow, we still know very little about this great giveback, even as it happens all around us. 

Next: Why MOLA?

The Great Giveback