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Opinion Is it okay to steal back looted colonial-era treasures?

London’s Victoria and Albert Museum has put Ethiopian treasures plundered by British forces on display. (Reuters)

Rising powers from the so-called global south are putting their former Western colonizers on notice: They want their looted treasures — and their historical dignity — back.

In China, it is estimated that up to 10 million antiquities have disappeared since 1840, the beginning of the so-called Century of Humiliation. In a great piece for GQ, Alex Palmer writes, “The modern Communist Party has declared its intent to bring China back from that period of prolonged decline, and the return of looted objects serves as undeniable proof—tangible, visible, and beautiful proof—of the country’s revival.” According to Palmer, Chinese billionaires have been using their wealth to acquire Chinese art from European firms. More stunningly, highly skilled thieves have targeted Europe’s museums, brazenly stealing Chinese antiquities that were looted during the 19th century.

Perhaps we can’t blame a formerly oppressed nation for wanting to get back their heritage by any means necessary, even if that means pulling off Killmonger-style heists. (Remember how many of us cheered the scene when the character Killmonger, in the Marvel movie “Black Panther,” stole back African artifacts from a British museum?) Many countries have requested formally the return of their looted heritage, only to find that their former colonizers and invaders aren’t budging. The Indian government has long demanded that the British return the famous 105.6-carat Kohinoor diamond that it took after the Anglo-Sikh wars of the 1840s. Britain has claimed that the diamond was a “gift.” Former prime minister David Cameron once said that the Kohinoor would “stay put” — and remain as one of the British crown jewels.

In the case of Nigeria’s Benin Bronzes or Ethiopia’s looted treasures, British museums have has oh-so-generously offered to “loan” back pieces of heritage that they stole during their colonial escapades.

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What is undeniable is that as more and more countries gain wealth and geopolitical influence, museums and galleries in Western countries will feel only more pressure and scrutiny for their decisions to hold onto stolen heritage. Asia is now becoming home to the world’s highest number of billionaires — China is in first place, while India ranks third. Wealth and influence combined with increasing nationalism will bring about a demand for art — and justice.

Social media makes it easier for people around the world to spread awareness not only about colonial history but also about efforts to restore heritage objects to their original country. A group called the India Pride Project is a collective of online volunteers who scour the world’s museums, exhibitions and private collections for looted artifacts from India. They use social media to pressure for the return of artifacts.

In New Delhi earlier this year, I spoke with Anuraag Saxena, the Singapore-based businessman who leads the group. “The whole project started with a bunch of us saying, ‘Hey, can we use heritage as a way to leverage pride in our own civilization?’ ” He said the motivation behind the project is simple: “History belongs to geography. Heritage belongs to the community that it was meant for. If it is taken anywhere else, it’s not just wrong, it’s almost a sin.”

India Pride Project is about five years old and largely decentralized, with a core of about a dozen volunteers who spend several hours a week scanning catalogs and websites around the world for Indian heritage items. Saxena said another 700 volunteers around the world make themselves available when necessary to report and send photos and information on Indian artifacts that end up in the world’s galleries, museums and art collections. In 2014, the group helped to recover a stolen statue of Shiva from an Australian museum worth more than $5 million.

Still, when it comes to looted heritage, is it morally wrong to steal back treasures that were forcibly taken from your culture? Saxena doesn’t believe that stealing — or buying — back treasures is the way to go. Instead, he argues that the only “sustainable way is to make the moral case” that countries should return stolen heritage.

It feels unfair that decades after the end of colonization, advocates still have to beg richer nations to give back looted artifacts or settle for Western nations to temporarily loan back their own treasures.

At least some Western politicians are saying the right things. French President Emmanuel Macron has promised to return African artifacts. In Britain, Jeremy Corbyn has promised to return the famous Elgin Marbles to Greece if he is elected prime minister.

But whether leaders or recipient countries follow through on their promises to bring back stolen loot is another matter. In 2016, then-Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch presided over a ceremony in which the United States offered some 200 artifacts worth more than $100 million to India. The Indian government says only 17 artifacts have made it back to India. (When I tried to get a response from the Department of Homeland Security to find out if all of the artifacts were sent back to India, the agency repeatedly said it had no one available to speak on the matter.)

That countries such as China and India are taking new pride in their history and national heritage is only natural, given their growing economic and political clout. Countries in Africa and Latin America are also on the rise. European countries and their museums should be prepared for more ex-colonial nations around the world to demand the return of stolen goods. And to begin to let go of their colonial past — literally.