There is a growing clamour for museums – and Western museums in particular – to return to their countries of origin the spoils of war, loot and other cultural artefacts, arising from conflict. This has, in turn, triggered a wider debate about the legitimacy of museum collections, the thrust of liberal opinion being that all spoils of war are, by definition, illegitimate and so should be repatriated.
Unfortunately for the conduct of a rational discussion of the subject, the proponents of repatriation either deliberately or inadvertently conflate spoils of war with loot. These are, in fact, two very different things as the first Duke of Wellington demonstrated both by word and deed.
The Wellington ‘principle’
For Wellington, the question as to whether or not an item acquired from a defeated enemy was a spoil of war, which could with honour be retained, or loot, which should be returned, was one of circumstance: spoils were legitimately acquired in the course of conflict, loot was theft. His views on the subject were amply demonstrated by his actions at the conclusion of the Battle of Vitoria on 21 June 1813 and the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815.
As the French Army fled the field of battle in Spain in 1813, British troops seized from the carriage of ex-King Joseph Bonaparte a valuable silver chamber pot given to him by his brother, the Emperor Napoleon, and a collection of Old Master paintings (including three Titians) that Joseph had removed from the royal palace in Madrid.
Wellington was perfectly happy for the potty to remain with its captors (now The King’s Royal Hussars), who ever since have used it as a loving cup, but he made strenuous efforts in writing to return the pictures to their rightful owner, King Ferdinand VII of Spain. Fortunately for Wellington’s heirs, the Spanish king eventually responded by letter informing the duke that he should keep the collection.
After the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Wellington consigned every scrap of enemy property found on or around the battlefield either to a Prize Auction or had the items shipped back to England: amongst others, the Prince Regent was graciously pleased to accept a number of French Eagles, which he later presented to the regiments that had captured them.
However, the accumulation of foreign, non-military works of art that Napoleon had acquired during his European conquests, most notably The Quadriga taken from St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, were regarded by Wellington as loot. Accordingly, he organised for their repatriation, albeit that many of the smaller items slipped through his net and remain in French museums.
The Monuments Men
At the conclusion of the Second World War, the same principle was applied to German spoils of war and loot by the victorious Western Allies (but not by the Soviets).
While captured German spoils, including statuary, militaria and furniture made their way to British and American military museums, a team of experts – known as the ‘Monuments Men’ – was appointed to assemble, catalogue and return the 25% of the art heritage of Occupied Europe that had been looted by the Germans.
Precedent – a complicating factor
So, if the Iron Duke and the victorious Allies understood the difference between spoils of war and loot, why has the subject become such a hot topic in the twenty-first century? The answer is that the Wellingtonian principle that spoils stay put and loot should be returned has been compromised – so it is claimed – by the actions, or proposed actions, of British and other museums who have already set a precedent that spoils can (and should) be returned to their countries of origin.
This is, in fact, a misreading of the situation. The spoils of war acquired by the British following the Siege of Magdala in 1868 and the Third Anglo-Burmese War of 1885, some of which have been returned, were repatriated for political not cultural reasons – and didn’t have to be de-accessioned as they were the property of the British government and were only on loan to British museums.
This rejection of precedent does not, however, satisfy the historical revisionists who continue to make demands for repatriation. In what has become an increasingly one-sided debate, there are a number of issues that this lobby needs to address:
The British government was only able to return spoils of war to Burma and Ethiopia because they existed. Had they not been legitimately removed they would have been lost forever in the Second World War. This undeniable fact was freely acknowledged by the Burmese government, who presented the Victoria & Albert Museum with two of the returned items of royal regalia as a ‘thank you’ for having taken such good care of them for 80 years.
In the years following their acquisition as spoils of war, the Burmese and Ethiopian artefacts were not only conserved but were on public display for all the world to see. Had they been left in situ, and assuming that they had survived the Second World War, how many people would have seen them?
The same question could be asked of all those spoils of war, now in British museums, that were taken from other countries which have since either been closed to the outside world or ravaged by internal strife.
How many people have seen the Benin bronzes in western museums by comparison with the number who might have seen them in Nigeria – or who would see them there in the future?
There is then the question of spoils of war acquired under international treaties. The much-disputed Koh-i-Noor diamond was ceded to the British crown under Article III of the Treaty of Lahore in 1846; and the Rock of Gibraltar was ceded under Article X of the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht. The recent brouhaha surrounding a possible repudiation of certain terms in the 2019 Brexit Withdrawal Agreement highlight the issue. Either international treaties are inviolable or they are not.
Finally, there is the vexed question of original ownership, which the repatriation lobby has yet to address. To name but one, the aforementioned Koh-i-Noor diamond is currently being claimed by the Indian, Pakistani, Afghan and Iranian governments, because at one time or another their predecessors owned it. Not even King Solomon would be able to solve that one…
Christopher Joll is the author of Spoils of War: The Treasures, Trophies & Trivia of the British Empire (published by Nine Elms Books, 2020)