Return of Displaced Cultural Property from Abroad

1. The global movement for the return of cultural property to its countries of origin

In November, 2010 The U.S. promised to return all of 46,000 Inca artifacts kept by Yale University to Peru. Those artifacts were supposed to be returned after 18-month-long research. But, it took as long as a century to be returned to the owner. Weak and impoverished country, Peru.Nevertheless, its noble spirit remained intact. Not even the U.S. with its mighty power could harm it.

The noble spirit was manifested in the burning desire of the Peruvian government and its people. The desire to repatriate what used to belong to their ancestors. Egypt pioneered this global movement. Egypt has retrieved 200,000-year-old relics from the Stone Age kept by London University in 2010.

In addition, it has also reclaimed a mural excavated from a tomb nearby the ‘Valley of the Kings’ from France. Over the past eight years, Egypt has retrieved 31,000 displaced cultural treasures from abroad. 

China has formed a task force team to take stock of the actual conditions of its cultural artifacts looted by the U.S., the U.K. and France. China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage plans to request governments in question for the official restitution of its cultural properties based on such research results. The global movement on the restitution of stolen cultural properties has become increasingly massive.

The number of displaced cultural treasures confirmed thus far reach as many as 74,000 pieces for Korea. However, the number only includes those kept in museums and exhibition centers. There will be many more such treasures if privately owned cultural properties are included. And, it is difficult to locate these properties. 

Well-known cultural properties displaced overseas are:
Uigwe, a collection of Royal Protocols, kept in the Library of Japan’s Imperial Household Agency,
the Ogura collection of Tokyo National Museum,
the five-story stone pagoda of Icheon sat in a garden behind Hotel Okura TokyoTokyo’s Hotel Okura,
the Oe-gyujanggakkyujanggak books kept in the French National LibraryNational Library of France,
and the Sarira Reliquary in the shape of a Tibetan Buddhist stupa kept in Museum of Fine Arts BostonBoston’s Museum of Fine Arts in the U.S..

However, only 5,000 Korean cultural properties have been returned to Korea during last 60 years.
The number is significantly less than 31,000 for Egypt retrieved during an eight-year-period and 1646,000 for Peru.

2. Return of displaced Korean Cultural Properties from Abroad

In 2010, Japan agreed to return 1,205 Korean ancient books.

‘Uigwe’ will be one of the books. It is an invaluable  collection of historical documents from the Joseon Dynasty(1392-1910). It kept records of major ceremonies and rites conducted for coronations of a king, installations of the Crown Prince and weddings of the royal. All in in all paintings and writings with great details.

However, some Korean treasures with significant national cultural importance were omitted from the restitution list notified by Japan unilaterally. We Koreans had hoped for the return of such treasures and requested it to Japan, but we Koreans just accepted what Japan offered. 
This is regretful for Koreans..

Currently, as many as 60,000 pieces of Korean cultural properties are in Japan.
Therefore, the return of 1,200 ancient books is only the beginning.

France also promised to return all the 298 books of the Royal Archives, known as ‘Oegyujanggak kyujanggak’. They were taken from Korea when France raided Ganghwa island and looted plundered the books in 1866. France had declined every request of the Korean government made for the return of the books. 

The agreement to return the books is a triumphant result of 19-year-long negotiations initiated by Korea with France. It took as many as 145 years since the books were stolen.

3. Go! Jikji Expedition

Among displaced Korean cultural properties overseas, the world’s first metal typographyoldest movable metal type printed book of ‘Jikji shimche yojol’ interests Koreans most. ‘Jikji’ was ferried to France from Seoul in the end of the 19th century by Collin de Plancy, charg d’affaires ad interim with the French Embassy. Today, it is in the hands of the National Library of France.

‘Jikji’ was printed in 1377. And, it antedated “42-line Bible” printed by Gutenberg’s metal typeset by 78 years. In 1990, at the World Exposition in Paris, Jikji was revealed to the world for the first time.
The world was startled to see the oldest book in existence. The history of printing was rewritten since the originator was no longer the West but Korea.

Many of the world’s renowned press have all named the movable metal type printing as the greatest invention in the history of human culture over the past millennium. And, ‘Jikji’ was inscribed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme.

For Koreans, ‘Jikji’ is one of the greatest cultural heritage along with ‘Hangueeul(Korean language)’ and ‘Geobukseon(Turtle Ship)’. France, however, refused not only to return ‘Jinkji’ ‘Jikji’ but also to lend it.

Meanwhile, France has retrieved all the cultural objects looted by Germany after the first First world World war War by taking legal actions. This reveals hypocritical side of France. Now, it is time for France to make a decision befitting its pride in being a nation with powerful culture.
4. For the Return of Cultural Assets Held Abroad

There are at least four different categories of cultural objects to be returned.

One category includes cultural objects outflown in a time of war, The other covers cultural objects excavated or taken illegally, Another involves cultural objects transferred during colonial times or foreign invasions, And, there is the category that includes cultural objects whose ownership has been changed. The transfer of ownership could happen when once one nation is divided into many states as shown in the case of the Soviet Union.

UNESCO adopted ‘the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property’. This was achieved in the 16th UNESCO General Assembly held in 1970. The Convention is only applicable to the cultural objects excavated or taken illegally. What is unfortunate, however, is that it is not even retroactive.

As for cultural objects transferred during colonial times, there is no binding agreement in the world at the moment. Besides voluntary donation or purchase of the cultural properties, the only way to deal with the issue is negotiation between governments in question.

In order to retrieve displaced cultural properties from abroad, actions must be taken. 

First, an organization of scholars and experts should be established to conduct an accurate research on displaced cultural assets.
Second, specific rationales should be provided when demanding the return of looted cultural assets. This could be achieved through a through historic analysis.

Third, government-related entities should take the lead in making efforts for the restitution of cultural properties.

Fourth, efforts must be made to make the peoples of nations that looted treasures of Korea realize the need to return the treasures.

Fifth, efforts must be made to raise the global awareness of stolen cultural properties.
And, a global movement calling for the return of such properties must be carried out on a long term basis in a continuous manner.

This could be done in collaboration with nations with experiences of their cultural properties stolen such as Egypt, India, Greece and China. 

Sixth, the retrieved cultural objects require delicate care. There should be follow-up measures such as designation of the retrieved as ‘National Cultural Treasures’ depending on each value.

They made efforts to raise the awareness of local communities that have rightful ownership of such items. They also sent letters to each cultural properties administration, urging them to retrieve what should be theirs.

Inspired by their efforts, each cultural properties administration now makes vigorous efforts to demand countries holding the Korean cultural objects in question to be returned.

The cyber diplomatic organization VANK interacts with students and teachers worldwide online. 
By doing so, it persuades the world that such properties are Korea’s treasures signifying the spirit and the soul of Koreans. And that they should be returned to Korea since they are part of the Korean history.
The duty of returning and retrieving displaced cultural properties is a global commitment as well as an obligation that must be honored.  This must be honored by the peoples in the developed world who have conscience.

By the peoples of powerful nations who love culture.
By the intellects who pursue universal values of the mankind.

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