Repatriation: what does it take?

Art crime embodies illicit trafficking, smuggling, theft, fakes and fraud. Yet, the illicit trade in cultural property is so under-researched that basic empirical evidence is, for the most part, either unreliable or absent. Alterations in legislation and law enforcement are necessary but upholding supply chain due diligence and market transparency is likewise critical for implementing change. A conservator’s capacity to authenticate can disrupt the persistence of fakery and dishonest imitation: deceivers and dupes ousted by discoverers.

The body of knowledge and desire to create a robust framework is there, highlighted time and again in cases of art theft, restitution, questionable authorship, artistic deception, indecent art market manipulation, falsified documentation and scholarship, etc. Regional, national and international crimes against art, antiquities and heritage require concrete evidence as proof, and although various levels of understanding coexist between all disciplines involved it’s only by being open to collaborating together that we can actively bridge the gap between problem and solution. Versatile integration generated by cohesive groupings of people welded by a universal dialogue will help to challenge these art crimes, particularly because being multidisciplinary encourages a wider scope to dealing with/understanding each aspect.

Figure 1: Looking through window of the Little Ship Club, Bell Wharf Lane, Upper Thames St, London EC4R 3TB during ICON’s Gilding & Decorative Surfaces Group Symposium: Devotional Objects.

Irit Narkiss and Mark Furness from the Museum of Manchester and John Iris Library reflected upon their experience of art crime in the Gilding & Decorative Surfaces Group Symposium: Devotional Objects at the Little Ship Club in London on 6th of March 2020. The talk focussed on how their cultural heritage institutions responded to claims of repatriation and the consequences of their actions.

A delegation of Traditional Owners from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Straits Studies (AIATSIS) have been working with the Manchester Museum, part of The University of Manchester, on a project that has the scope to facilitate the return of cultural heritage back to Country. Funded by the Australian Government to mark the 250th anniversary of Cook’s first voyage to the East Coast of Australia, the project not only involved initial secondary source research of institutional holdings but was also followed up with the targeted investigation of online collections and direct contact with community stakeholders.

Narkiss and Furness refined their ‘First Pass’ collections report during custodian meetings on Country, promoting cross-cultural collaboration and revitalisation. This dialogue has since led to specific reacquisitions being made. The University of Manchester has identified and plan to return 43 secret sacred and/or ceremonial objects to the Aranda, Gangalidda Garawa, Nyamal, and Yawuru peoples[1].

Repatriation is by no means an easy process and the work currently being implemented at the Museum of Manchester not only addresses unrequited colonialism, which promotes healing and reconciliation, but draws attention to the lasting impact of art crime. By developing conversations around the future of their collections and, critically, taking action, the Museum of Manchester leads by personal, professional and sectoral example. ‘Repatriation is not about what is lost but about what is gained’[2].

Figure 2: Canvas study under the Olympus Japan S Z microscope G 10x, iPhone 5 SE looking through microscope lens.

In conservation the principles and ethics resulting from a science-based agenda, inspired by universal values inherited from the Enlightenment, incites detachment from object biographies. As conservators we remove, obscure or bring to the fore specific elements relating to the tangible with often less consideration of the intangible. How we as individuals treat objects is reflective of the discipline as a whole. Manchester Museum exemplifies repatriation as an act important and necessary for cultural revitalisation. It unlocked the objects lore, history, tradition and story and has in turn highlighted the art of value. Objects don’t have needs; they only have the needs of the people that care about them.

Knowledge of materials and techniques, interpreting context and unmasking counterfeit documentation set the standard by which conservation treatments should proceed. The power of forensic science in being able to divulge information about an object’s creation, and drawing comparison to its art historical qualities, cultural significance and blueprint of provenance, are unprecedented skills that have the potential to aid art crime investigations.

About the author: Alexandra Taylor is a paintings conservator at Art Salvage & Art Conservation NL. Before this she worked at Saltmarsh Paintings Conservation in Cambridge, UK. She is the Book Reviews Coordinator at the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (IIC), and the Social Media Officer for the Institute of Conservation (ICON) Paintings Group. Alexandra received her conjoint BFA(h)/BA at the University of Auckland (NZ), and MA in Cultural Materials Conservation at the University of Melbourne (AUS). She is a 2019 GAF Fellow at the International Specialised Skills Institute in Melbourne (AUS). Her Fellowship investigated current practice in preventing art crimes in conservation with the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art (IT).

Disclaimer: this article is intended for educational purposes, and does not purport to provide legal advice. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author.


[1] Institute of Conservation (ICON) 2020, ‘The return of cultural heritage project: what does it take to unconditionally repatriate?’ in Gilding & Decorative Surfaces Group Symposium: Devotional Objects, Little Ship Club, 6th of March 2020.

[2] Institute of Conservation (ICON) 2020, ‘The return of cultural heritage project: what does it take to unconditionally repatriate?’ in Gilding & Decorative Surfaces Group Symposium: Devotional Objects, Little Ship Club, 6th of March 2020.