Is lawful retention of colonially acquired artifacts on par with looting?

Posted on December 8, 2008



Colonial cargo ship.

On his site, Modern Ghana, Dr. Kwame Opoku asks the question, “Can we condemn contemporary looting of artifacts without condemning colonial loot and plunder?

To be clear, this breaks down into two issues:
(1) The ethical implications of looting and activities supporting looting, and
(2) The ethical implications of the trade in or possession of artifacts lawfully acquired under colonial or imperial rule.

At least under the current legal framework, looting is unlawful. Retention of artifacts procured in times of imperialism is not.

Dr. Opoku does use the example of Nazi-stolen artwork to indicate that it is appropriate to provide restitution in situations where plunder was lawful, but nonetheless unethical. I do think Nazi plunder and colonial acquisition are different in at least one respect. The actions of Nazis were against the commonly accepted international standards of the time. The actions of colonial rulers were not.

Obviously colonialism is not accepted by the mores of present day, but it was considered not only lawful, but also ethical, in its time.

I do not know the answer to Opoku’s question. His strongly stated position is that there is little or no difference between contemporary looting and retention of colonially appropriated artifacts. I would be interested in hearing from those who condemn looting but not colonial holdover.

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