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“This Is Not A Game”

Media call on Christopher Marinello; the Sherlock Holmes of the art scene. The lawyer and art detective is specialized in bringing back looted and stolen art objects from all over the world. The case of the Benin-Bronzes plundered in 1897 from Benin-City is not “particularly complex” for him: They should be returned.

Mr. Marinello, could you please describe what your company Art Recovery International does?

We specialise in recovering stolen and looted works of art and negotiating and resolving complex title disputes over fine art. It is our goal to get parties involved in title disputes to see and do what’s right without the need for lengthy and costly litigation. I have hundreds of cases before me at the moment but if you want a snapshot of today, I am working on a Nazi-looted picture that is being hidden by a German dealer. I am also working on a stolen painting that is in a Japanese museum. I have recovered over 500 million euro worth of fine art including paintings by Matisse, Degas, Picasso, Crivelli, Duccio, a rare Bentley classic car, watches, coins, stamps, guns…

The Benin objects, looted in 1897 by a British „Punitive Expedition“ – could you describe the complexities of the case regarding the return of the objects…

I don’t consider these issues particularly complex. The objects were looted by the British in a most horrific way and should be returned. These treasures have now been dispersed all over the world. What is complex is dealing with those individuals and institutions who don’t want to cooperate with restitution for financial or proprietary reasons. We can only imagine what this part of Africa would be like today without the cultural rape of this civilisation that took place in 1897.

The Obas of Benin have been demanding the return of the looted Benin objects for decades. The objects are now in many collections and museums all over the world. How high is the possibility to get them back.

While there has been talk about restitution of Benin objects for decades, it is only now that we are seeing serious consideration on an international level. At the moment the probability for immediate restitution is low but it is increasing considerably.

Where do you see serious considerations? And why is it increasing? 

We are finally seeing world leaders beginning to address this situation and making commitments to the research and return of looted objects in State collections.

Are there possible legal means and ways for the demands for return?

Relying on the courts of nation states is not the answer in my view. I support a set of principles akin the Washington Principles on Nazi Confiscated Assets be implemented to guide governments, museums, and collectors in the restitution process. Just to name three of these principles that could be applied to the Benin situation: Relevant records and archives should be open and accessible to researchers; resources and personnel should be made available to facilitate the identification of artworks that had been confiscated and not subsequently restituted; efforts should be made to utilize a central registry of such information such as the non-profit Artive Cultural Heritage Database Project, www.artive.org.

National laws regarding the return of objects which were bought “in goodfaith” make legal actions often very difficult…

That is correct. Such laws need to be amended without hesitation. “Good faith” should be defined as conducting sufficient due diligence before acquiring a work of art. Thorough provenance research must be performed on an object prior to acquisition. It is unacceptable to rely on a lack of awareness of Cultural Heritage issues as an element of good faith.

Could mediation be a possible way?

Mediation is always the preferred method to international litigation. The parties involved should consider formal arbitration. Opponents to this process are usually not confident in their positions and fear that they will lose. This has always been the impediment to binding arbitration.

But the case is complex, a lot of stakeholders and actors are involved. Even within Nigeria: To whom shall the Benin objects return, to the Federal government, to Edo State or to the Oba of Benin? – Wouldn’t such a case be too complex for mediation?

Nothing is too complex for mediation. The finest minds working in Cultural Heritage could come up with a solution that keeps everyone reasonably happy while righting a horrible historic wrong. I have resolved restitution cases – always on a confidential basis – involving museums and Governments where both sides have compromised their positions without compromising their core values. We specialise in reaching creative solutions to complex art related title disputes.

There have been many expert conferences and meetings concerning Benin cultural property where also the return had been discussed. Why has almost nothing happened and changed over the decades?

Talk is cheap and these conferences often give Governments and institutions an opportunity to appear to the world that they are concerned about this issue. Nothing will happen until there is a genuine desire to restitute stolen and looted Benin Cultural Property.

How could “such a desire” look like?

There must be much more public awareness of this issue. We are beginning to see support from world leaders and I applaud the French President Emmanuel Macron for taking the lead in this area. However, while the statements of support are welcome, it must not end there; specific legislation must follow. Macron’s comments that the return of African artefacts will become a top priority for France in the next five years, are a welcome change in the international discourse.

There is a Benin Dialogue Group, a group of museums directors and curators, discussing ways of exhibiting, loaning and maybe returning looted Benin objects to Nigeria. What do you think about this group? How high is the possibility that expert and academic discussions lead to any return?

I applaud the efforts of the Benin Dialogue Group as the beginning of the serious discussions referred to above. This dialogue is critical to the ultimate goal of returning these objects to Africa.

One major counterargument against the return is the loose security situation and the corruption in Nigeria. Have many Benin objects been stolen from Nigerian museums and archeological places and appeared in the international art market?

This is an old Western trick utilised in the debate over the return of the Parthenon Marbles from the British Museum. Greece has built a secure, first-rate facility to house the Parthenon sculptures yet we don’t see them being returned anytime soon. I am not aware that Nigeria has suffered any more or less thefts in their museums than other countries not situated in the middle of a war-zone. This has the inkling of a racist argument.

How strong and influential is the art market when it comes to the questions of repatriation?

Don’t count on the art market to do anything positive with respect to this issue unless and until they are forced to via legislation or otherwise. Left to their own devices, the art market will always choose their own financial interests over “doing the right thing” unless possessing looted artwork begins to hurt their bottom line.

Do they lobby to hinder such developments like the return of the Benin art?

Honestly, the art market is too busy looking for ways to earn money to develop an organised lobby against restitution.

You spend a good part of your work with Nazi looted art. Such cases seem to play on an other level. Why?

I don’t like to use the word “play”. This is not a game. Every genocide in world history is its own unique horror. While the facts of colonial looting may differ from the facts of Nazi-looting, the principle of righting historic wrongs is the same.

How long did the Jewish community fight for the repatriation of their Nazi looted art?

This is a process that is still going on, 72 years after WWII. It will continue until dealers, collectors, museums, and auction houses comply with the spirit of the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art whether or not it is binding upon them.

The current Oba of Benin is the great grandson of the Oba who ruled in 1897, when the Royal Palace was looted. What is your expert advice: What should the Oba do?

Education and awareness is the key Most people outside cultural heritage academia don’t have a clue as to what happened in Benin and their textbooks have not been honest with them. I would recommend that the Oba reach out to Western media outlets. Tell the story to anyone who will listen. Help educate westerners about Benin culture and what colonialism did to destroy that culture. Maintain your resolve; never give up the fight to seek restitution of these objects. Perhaps Steven Spielberg George Clooney, or Angelina Jolie could help us out with a film!

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Interview by Dr. Lutz Mükke; a German Journalist and Africanist; the initiator and manager of the Benin-Bronze-Project, an international cooperation of Nigerian and German journalists investigating the story of the Benin-objects looted in 1897. The investigation takes place in Europe, Africa and the USA. Project partners are Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a leading German national quality newspaper; Code for Africa, a pan-African civic organisation andLeipziger Volkszeitung. The project is supported by the journalist association „Diligence and courage” and its „Carthogapher-Mercator-Programme for Journalists.” 

Christopher Marinello