4 November 2022
Appropriate Reappropriation: Athens and Benin
By Amalyah Keshet
‘We Reappropriated What Belongs to Us’: Congolese Artists Minted NFTs of a Colonial-Era Sculpture – and the Museum That Owns It Is Not Happy.
Like the group mentioned above, Looty [1.] is an organization with a mission: providing alternative forms of restitution for African looted art. “We are an anonymous team of artists, philosophers and future thinkers fast forwarding digital restitution of looted artworks” by minting and selling NFTs of looted African artifacts. “Each sale will pay royalties of 20% into the Looty Fund. The fund is open to artists under the age of 25 from the African continent and will start to pay out when 75 percent of the collection has sold, demonstrating “the importance of access to cultural heritage for contemporary artists.” An honorable aim, but 20% is not an impressive share, and conditioning it on 75 % sales is a stumbling block. Looty’s first collection consists of 25 NFTs of Benin Bronzes based on a looted Oba head in the British Museum.
“To challenge the museum institutions who refuse to return these looted works to the rightful countries of ownership, we are launching NFTs of looted works and paying out reparations in the form of profits made from the sale of each NFT.
In doing so, we hope to answer the legal, philosophical and moral question of what happens if the NFT version eclipses the value of that which is held in museums? Will the works be given back then?”
This goal was obviously published back when hype about NFTs was rampant. The next stage of the project envisioned is, inevitably, a virtual museum in the metaverse for the reclaimed artifacts, “as well as expansions into augmented reality and merchandise.”
Looty claims it uses “an entirely legal process” by sending representatives into institutions to digitally capture looted artefacts, render them in 3D, and create NFTs from the scans.
The Elgin Marbles meet 3D robotic carving
The British Museum has reportedly taken a different view on the legality of 3D photography and rendering regarding the Elgin Marbles – as did Berlin’s Neues Museum regarding 3D scans of the head of Nefertiti. In 2019, after a three-year legal battle, the latter museum relented; scans of the famous artifact, itself the subject of a repatriation dispute with Egypt, are now freely available on line. [2.]
The Oxford-based Institute for Digital Archaeology (IDA), meanwhile, has said it “may take legal action” against the British Museum after its request to 3D scan part of the Parthenon marbles was refused. An open letter on the subject appears on the Institute’s website, laying out its argument.
Reportedly, the British Museum had allowed a team from the Acropolis Museum in Athens to scan the Parthenon marbles in 2013 and 2017. Denied official access, however, members of the IDA entered the BM as visitors, using “iPad-sized 3D scanners,” to capture what they wanted.
The IDA’s carving of their Parthenon sculptures reconstruction began in June, 2022 at the Carrara workshop of Robotor/Torart. 3D images of a horse’s marble head were uploaded to the carving robot, which produced a prototype in four days. Carved from what is claimed to be the same stone as the originals, the copies would be “virtually indistinguishable” from the originals. [3.]
Robotor, which undertook the reproduction project, specializes in integrating multi-axis industrial robots that recreate 3D stone designs. They argue that this is a new era of sculpture without broken stones, chisels, and dust but with scanning, point clouds, design and artificial intelligence. Description of the robotic carving process has waxed from poetic to cinematic.
“Carving with pinpoint precision, and at least some of the artistic flair of its more celebrated (and human) predecessors, ABB2, a 13-foot, zinc-alloy robotic arm, extended its spinning wrist and diamond-coated finger toward a gleaming piece of white marble. Slowly and steadily, ABB2 milled the slab of stone…”
“Mr. Michel explained that once the three-dimensional scans are taken, the institute can create a highly detailed 3D model of the sculptures. This is then uploaded into a carving robot, with the ability to reproduce the sculptures in stone to the nearest millimeter. ‘It looks like something out of the first Terminator movie, but the delicacy of the carving is just extraordinary. It’s as good as anything a human sculptor can do,’ says Michel.”
“We are open to exploring any potential loan,” a British Museum spokesperson said, “with formal acknowledgment of the lender’s title to objects and a commitment to return objects a standard precondition.” But Greece will neither acknowledge the lender’s title to the objects, nor will it abide by the “standard precondition.”
Perhaps the discovery that Lord Elgin, with the collusion of the then foreign secretary, did not pay the necessary British customs tax for import of the marbles, will provoke further obligation to resolve the issue. “…Elgin deliberately underplayed the value of the spectacular sculptures, the removal of which was highly contentious even then, describing one consignment in 1803 as ‘trifling antiques and marbles.’ ”
New law gives museums power to repatriate objects in England and Wales
1. Looty was an “unusual” (thereafter “Pekinese”) dog brought to England in 1860 by a British serviceman and presented to Queen Victoria. “Named Looty in reference to its origins, it was reportedly taken after the British sacked a royal palace in Peking [Beijing].”
Looty lived in Windsor Castle until its death in 1872. A portrait can be found in the Royal Collection.
2. The fascinating story of the legal and ethical battle for public access to the Nefertiti scans can be found here.
3. The claim that the copies will be carved from “the same rare Athenian stone as the originals” appears to conflict with statements that the copies would be carved in Carrara, Italy. The stone from which the originals were carved came from Penteli, not far from Athens.