Contemporary Art History 101 – What is the Deal with Restitution?

This is a new series of articles that aim to bring art history to the 21st century and discuss hot topics – might not just be like the old stuff you are used to. Brace yourself for both sides of the coin, challenging ideas, engaging conversations, and coming to an understanding that those conversations are crucial. If not now than when. Today we start with Restitution!

Restitution is a topic that is both cultural and social, it touches many spheres of life and dips its toes in history, memories and more. Many of you will be somehow familiar with the term restitution – at least vaguely. If you watch the movie Woman in Gold (2015), featuring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds, you might remember the conversation in which Mirren, playing Maria Altmann giving a speech about “being reunited with what is rightfully ours”  

What exactly does restitution mean?  

Definition of restitution 

1 : an act of restoring or a condition of being restored: such as  

a : a restoration of something to its rightful owner  

b : a making good of or giving an equivalent for some injury  

2 : a legal action serving to cause restoration of a previous state 

As stated by Alexander Herman in his book Restitution, The Return of Cultural Artefacts:  

‘Restitution’ is a term denoting the return of cultural material to an individual, group or nation with the overall aim of doing justice for a past or ongoing wrong.  

It is a term that brings images of justice, of fairness. Returning something like you would return a book at the library, who is after all the rightful owner of the book you borrow. For a short period of time, you have cared for the book, you have been the custodian of it, it still doesn’t grant you ownership and when the time comes, the book must be returned to the library.  

Restitution through history – is this a new term?  

Restitution is almost as old as the world. People have been looted and confiscated (rightfully and wrongfully) many times throughout the century. One era of restitution is not even 100 years old, and claims are settled still today. Just think of the movie Monument Men with George Clooney, Matt Damon and others. This movie is actually based on facts (mixed with fiction, of course) and touch upon the art looting done during the Holocaust. Claims are still settled today, more than 70 years after the fact. Another part of this long history goes back to the Napoleonic Wars and even further before that with the first restitution case being biblical and going back to 539 BCE. Many other times are calling for restitution and some important files include colonial looting; to Africain Countries as well as to Indigenous populations. One of the most popular ones is the case of the Parthenon Marbles or as they are sometimes referred to “The Elgin Marbles”. The war in Iraq and Afghanistan are also very familiar with restitution.  

It is then time to rethink and revamp the policies, ethics and practices that surround private and even more public acquisitions. Not only considering the cultural objects point of origin but its “raison d’être”, and making sure that the object has a clean provenance. As one will learn quite quickly diving into this subject there is a very broad difference between what is ethically the right decision and the one that law can reinforce. But there is progress, starting with the Sarr Savoy report, the MET returning an Egyptian Sarcophagus in 2019, the 202 Louvre project in collaboration with Sotheby’s and much more. Restitution is one step in the right direction regarding the decolonization of museums practices and acquisition practices, but, even when returned to the rightful owner, the harm won’t disappear. It won’t erase the past or present inequalities, nor then the suffering. More needs to come out from the conversation surrounding restitution, laws need to change, ethics need to be reinforced so looted cultural objects can be home, peacefully, once more. Be where they belong and perform the mandate they were created for no matter if they are trafficked antiquities, relics, art, artefacts or ceremonial objects. 

Further readings 

  • Chip Colwell “Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits”  
  • Alexander Herman “Restitution. The Return of Cultural Artefacts” 
  • Beat Schönenberger “ The Restitution of Cultural Assets”  

And if you are more into watching, the two following movies are good as well as this documentary made by the National Film Board of Canada: 

If you have any other recommendations that we should feature here, please let us know!  


Stay tuned for our next Contemporary Art History Lessons!

evlyne Laurin
evlyne Laurin
From Creative Chaos Manager, a term she coined, she expanded her horizons as a Creative Legacy Advisor and Fine Art Appraiser. Her mission is to contribute to the arts and make as many artists succeed and flourish as possible. evlyne has the worst phobia of pigeons, loves the colour orange and sparkling water! Avid traveller and foodie, you can connect with her on LinkedIn or Instagram.