The world’s most disputed antiquities: a top 5 list

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art announced Tuesday that it would return 19 Egyptian antiquities that have lived at the museum for most of the last century. These artifacts, excavated from the 14th century B.C. tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun (King Tut), include a sphinx bracelet, a small bronze dog, and a broad collar with beads, among other bits and pieces. Zahi Hawass, the former Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt, argued for the artifacts’ return in November 2010, claiming that the artifacts had been removed from the tomb illegally in the 1920s. But, the instability in Egypt during and following that country’s revolution this year has delayed the repatriation of King Tut’s belongings.

One of the biggest arguments in the art world is the repatriation of objects, particularly antiquities. On one side of the debate are art scholars who feel that ancient objects should remain in the care of their current (usually Western) museums or locations. The other side argues that antiquities should be returned to the countries from which they were removed because they were taken during times of war and colonization or were stolen and sold through the highly lucrative art black market.

It’s true that a great many antiquities and works of art we enjoy at museums today may have been acquired through looting or other unsavory practices. Here are five of the most famous works of art that have been repatriated or are the focus of an ongoing battle for ownership.1) Elgin Marbles
Where are they now? The British Museum, London
Where were they? The Parthenon, Athens, Greece
The Elgin Marbles, pictured in the featured image above, are synonymous with the repatriation debate. Also known as the Parthenon Marbles, these remarkable marble carvings once fronted the Parthenon and other buildings on Athens‘ ancient Acropolis. They were removed – some say vandalized – by Lord Elgin, former Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, in the late 18th century and sold in 1816 to London‘s British Museum, where they have lived ever since. Authorities in Greece have been trying for decades to have the marbles returned to Athens where they can be reunited with other Greek antiquities in the Acropolis Museum.

2) Obelisk of Aksum
Where is it now? Aksum, Ethiopia
Where was it? Rome, Italy
One of the first, high-profile repatriations of an antiquity was the return by Italy of the Obelisk of Aksum (or Axum) to Ethiopia. Pillaged by Mussolini’s troops in 1937, the 1,700-year old obelisk stood for years in the center of a traffic circle in Rome until 2005 when the government of Italy agreed to its return. The Obelisk of Aksum now resides with objects of a similar era at the Aksum World Heritage site in northern Ethiopia.

3) Objects from King Tut’s Tomb
Where are they now? The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Where are they headed? Giza, Egypt
As described in the intro, these priceless objects from King Tut’s tomb are set to be returned to Egypt next week. Egypt plans to install these objects at the new Grand Egyptian Museum, currently under construction and slated to open in 2012

4) Dea Morgantina (Aphrodite)
Where is it now? Aidone, Sicily
Where was it? Getty Museum, Los Angeles
The investigative reporting of two L.A. Times journalists was responsible for the recent repatriation of the Dea Morgantina, an ancient Aphrodite sculpture that had been a prized possession of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum, which takes a look at the repatriation debate and the flourishing arts black market, led the Getty Museum to return the stolen statue to its rightful home. The Aphrodite was inaugurated at the Archeological Museum of Morgantina in Sicily in early May 2011.

5) Hattuşa Sphinx
Where is it now? Istanbul, Turkey
Where was it? Berlin, Germany
Just last week, an ancient sphinx returned home to Turkey after years spent in Berlin‘s Pergamon Museum. One of a pair of sphinxes that stood in the ancient Hittite capital of Hattuşa, the sphinx will be restored at the Istanbul Archeological Museum before being returned to its ancient home approximately 150 miles northeast of Ankara.

[Flickr image via telemax]