The question of repatriating archaeological objects to their countries of origin (“restitution”) is one I’ve written about before, but which has seen new and exciting developments in recent months and deserves a revisit.

In December, the New York Times published an article titled “For U.S. Museums With Looted Art, the Indiana Jones Era is Over”. The title references the protagonist of the Indiana Jones film series – an American archaeologist who travels the world in search of rare and valuable artifacts which he famously claims “belong in a museum”.

The movies depict his efforts to collect these objects, confronting hidden traps, Nazis, Soviet agents, and aliens. While the films themselves are fictional (and the archaeological practices less-than-rigorous), there are important elements of reality woven in.

In my last article, I discussed the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute (OI) and the prominent role it and its founder, James Henry Breasted, played in diplomatic relations between the West and the Middle East in the first half of the 20th century. Intriguingly, Breasted is believed to be one of the inspirations for the character of Indiana Jones. Another archaeologist at the OI - Robert Braidwood – is thought to be the muse for Jones’ fictional mentor, Abner Ravenwood. The real lives of these men were celebrated in the public imagination as an expression of Western cultural superiority over what were frequently colonial populations.

So, what does it mean that the “Indiana Jones era is over”?

Referring to the devil-may-care, treasure-hunting practices of Western museums, it could be said that this era ended decades ago, possibly with the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

It's a sad reality that museums and private collectors still do acquire illicit objects, but it has become much more difficult in the face of public opinion and an increasingly complex climate of antiquities protection legislation around the world. Auction houses are now insisting on air-tight provenance (proof of an object’s prior ownership and evidence of its legal export from its country of origin) and new resources available to intelligence agencies improves the process of reuniting local museums with stolen objects.

What we are seeing now is not just the end of the Indiana Jones era, but its reckoning. Museums across the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Germany (among other countries) are under immense pressure to return the artifacts they acquired in the past through unofficial, illicit, or colonialist channels.

This new era of reckoning may have begun in 2005, with the high-profile indictment of former J. Paul Getty Museum curator of antiquities, Marion True. An Italian court found True guilty of acquiring illicit antiquities and conspiring with an international smuggling ring that laundered artifacts from Italy and Greece. The case was a source of embarrassment for the Getty Museum, which has nevertheless sporadically reappeared in mainstream media at the centre of new accusations of illicit acquisition.

The author of the recent Times article, Graham Bowley, references the landmark decision by six American museums to return objects to southern Nigeria (formerly the kingdom of Benin), from where they were taken by occupying British forces at the end of the 19th century. A similar announcement was published in The Guardian outlining the German government’s decision to transfer the ownership of over 1,000 such objects back to Nigeria. These collections, collectively called “the Benin Bronzes”, have been a constant focus of advocates of repatriation.

But let’s first compare the case of the Benin Bronzes to art and antiquities looted by European countries from European countries. At the turn of the 19th century, Napoleon’s forces removed thousands of cultural objects from Italy and brought the treasures back to the Louvre Museum in Paris. Following Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, most of the looted objects were returned to Italy within a decade.

Nazi-looted art is another example; in the years following WWII, countless agencies, commissions, and UN-sponsored task forces took on the task of registering and returning the tens of thousands of pieces of art looted by Nazi forces across Europe. While thousands were irretrievably lost (due to their destruction or smuggling), much of the looted objects that found their way to museums and private collections have since been returned.

It has been observed that the success seen by Europeans in recovering their own looted cultural heritage is not shared by the many Middle Eastern and African countries whose art and antiquities were removed under similar situations of European occupation.

The fact that so many Middle Eastern and African antiquities remain in Western museums and private collections is symptomatic of a larger, Western denial of Middle Eastern and African sovereignty. I suggest that recognition of this sovereignty (and amends made for its denial) is one of the most important elements of this new, post-Indiana Jones phase of reckoning. Its implications for other contentious cases, namely the Parthenon Marbles (removed from Ottoman-occupied Greece in the early 19th century), are optimistic.


Brodie, Neil. “Problematizing the Encyclopedic Museum: The Benin Bronzes and Ivories in Historical Context” in Bonnie Effros and Guolong Lai (ed.s) Unmasking Ideologies: The Vocabulary and Symbols of Colonial Archaeology. Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute, 2018. 61-82.
Bowley, Graham. “For U.S. Museums with Looted Art, the Indiana Jones Era Is Over.” The New York Times, December 13, 2022. Eustace, Katharine. “The Fruits of War: How Napoleon's Looted Art Found Its Way Home.” The Art Newspaper, June 2, 2015.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, directed by Steven Spielberg (Paramount Pictures, 1989).
Oltermann, Philip. “Germany Returns 21 Benin Bronzes to Nigeria – amid Frustration at Britain.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, December 20, 2022.
Watson, Peter, and Cecilia Todeschini. The Medici Conspiracy. New York: PublicAffairs, 2007.