The Australian Government has announced the return of a number of culturally significant antiquities to Egypt. The items were recently seized, at the request of Egypt, under the Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act 1986 (Cth) from an auction house and a private home in Australia.
The items included funerary objects (a wooden hand from an anthropoid coffin, “shabtis” statuettes to serve the deceased in the afterlife and amulets to protect the deceased), a Coptic textile fragment and a large saucer lamp. Each of these had been illegally exported from Egypt, in breach of its national cultural laws.
Such returns of cultural property to their countries of origin periodically take place, and result from Australia’s obligations under the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.
The most high-profile recent return of cultural property would be the 2014 return to India of a statue of the Indian deity Shiva, but such returns occur periodically.
For example, in 2005 and 2011, Australia returned to Egypt items similar to those that are subject to the most recent return; in March 2015 Australia returned a Qing dynasty statue to China (following the earlier return to China of fossilised dinosaur eggs); and Australia has also returned Iron Age ornaments to Cambodia and antiquities to Peru.
While owners of works that have been seized can challenge a seizure in court (for example, on the basis that they can show they have the proper export authority), we are only aware of one case in which an owner of items took a challenge to court.
In that case, the court was satisfied in relation to one item that the Australian government had not established that the item was part of the cultural heritage of the country that claimed it (as the item might have equally have come from other countries) and, in relation to other items, the court was not satisfied that the items were of sufficient quality to be subject to the act (for example, some items were made up from a number of broken items put together to form a single apparent whole, while another item was not a skull of a relevant tribe, but likely of a Japanese soldier).
For the media release from the Ministry of Arts relating to the latest seizure and return, see: