By Kumar David –
Where the Koh-i-Noor diamond was found is impossible to tell because that was a long time, perhaps more than five centuries ago. It is an alluvial diamond meaning it was found in shifting sands in a location that had once been a river bed. It passed through the hands of Nadir Shah (from whom we have the English word ‘nadir’) who sacked Delhi four times between 1738 and 1767, inflicting untold suffering on the city. On one occasion he took the diamond back to Persia as war bounty where it adorned the Peacock Throne. It remained there until Nadir was assassinated in a palace coup. Thereafter the diamond travelled to Afghanistan, and back briefly into the possession of an Indian Maharaja Duleep Singh. Then only 11 years old and scarcely able to comprehend what he was doing the kid Duleep gifted his kingdom to the East India Company and the Koh-i-Noor to Queen Victoria. It reached England in 1850.
However, King Chuck III’s consort Camilla Parker Bowles, will not wear the Kohinoor for the coronation on May 6 because of protests in India about misusing the stolen diamond. She will instead wear Queen Mary’s crown made in 1911 for Mary of Teck which contains a crystal replica of the Koh-i-Noor.
The story of the Mona Lisa is hardly less ignoble. It was looted by Napoleon together with about six hundred art treasures from all over Europe. Napoleonic looting was a series of confiscations of precious objects by the French from Italy, Spain, Portugal, the Low Countries, and Central Europe. Looting began around 1794 and continued till Waterloo. An immense quantity of art was acquired, destroyed, or lost through treaties, public auctions, and unsanctioned seizures. The French justified this as both a right of conquest and an advancement of public education and Enlightenment ideals. Many works were given back but many remained in Paris due to resistance to return within France. The Mona Lisa, the world’s most famous portrait, will remain firmly in the Louvre until at least WW-III.
What apart from their legacy as stolen treasure, do the Koh-i-Noor and the Mona Lisa have in common? Valuation. What are they worth? People call them priceless but there is one marker – insurance charges. The cost of insurance is a rough marker. It is a defective pointer because in is perturbed by markets and by recent events such as trends in the theft of art works. Both the diamond and the Mona Lisa have been insured at between US$ 500 million and US$ 800 million at various times. But that doesn’t work. If you owned a Manhattan property valued at eight million dollars nobody will give you the Koh-i-Noor or the Mona Lisa in exchange for 100 of these flats. Another comparison is that Apple, the largest company in the world, has a global stock capitalisation of about $ I trillion. Think of it, the Koh-i-Noor and the Mona Lisa are each worth a significant proportion of the global stock capitalisation of the world’s largest corporation. Hmm, just for a lump of colourless carbon or a painted piece of canvass!
It is morally correct, and reflects basic property laws, that stolen or looted property should be returned to its rightful owner. Here is an abbreviated version of a report in the Guardian newspaper. “Cultural objects belong together with the cultures that created them; these objects are a crucial part of contemporary cultural and political identity. Six artefacts looted by British troops 125 years ago from Benin City, in what is now Nigeria, are being repatriated to their place of origin, there is pressure on European museums to follow suit. Objects, including two 16th-century Benin bronze plaques ransacked from the royal palace, were handed to the director general of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments who said he hoped other museums holding looted artefacts from Benin City would be encouraged to do the same. In particular, he believed an agreement could soon be reached with the British Museum, the national cultural flagship that holds 900 objects, the largest collection in the world”.
“Germany handed over two Benin bronzes and put more than 1,000 other items from its museums’ collections into Nigeria’s ownership. “It was wrong to take the bronzes and it was wrong to keep them. This is the beginning to right the wrongs,” said the German foreign minister. In a separate dispute the Greek prime minister raised the repatriation of the Parthenon marbles – one of the most important collections of classical art in existence – at a meeting with King Charles at Windsor Castle. The marbles have been on display at the British Museum since 1892, after Lord Elgin had them stripped from the Parthenon and shipped to Britain”.
The British Museum’s (BM) collection has grown since 1753 when it acquired the founding collection from Sir Hans Sloane. Here is the story of some famous pieces of looted art.
Benin Bronzes are in many European museums Parthenon Marbles proudly displayed at the BM.
The Rosetta Stone which is in the BM enabled researchers to decipher the ancient Egyptian script and understand the cultures and history of ancient Egypt.
Tipu’s Tiger: The tiger was made for Tipu Sultan, ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore in India in the late 18th century. I don’t know where it is at present
Maori heads, decapitated, dried, and tattooed Maori heads are on display at various European museums, including the BM. They look gruesome.
Drawings of Saartjie ‘Sarah’ Baartman. Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman was a Khoikhoi woman who was taken from South Africa to London and exhibited as a freak show attraction in the 19th century. She was given the derogatory name “Hottentot Venus,” using a deregulatory term for the indigenous Khoikhoi people. When Baartman was sixteen, her husband was murdered by Dutch colonists, and she was sold into slavery. In 1810, Baartman was said to have signed a contract with a British physician who was her master’s friend, and was taken to Europe to be paraded around for her large bottom. She became the subject of scientific interest and racialized eroticism. Even after her death in 1815, Baartman’s remains were displayed at a museum in Paris for decades. In 2002 President Mandela successfully negotiated for her remains to be returned to South Africa and given a proper burial.