Beyond Property: A Reflection on the Value of Restitution of Looted Cultural Objects

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Human beings are cultural beings. This implies that being deprived of valuable cultural objects may directly affect them in their possibilities of being human. This predicament could explain the special attention given to cases of Nazi-looted cultural objects and, more recently, to collections of cultural objects looted or acquired under duress in territories of the former colonial empires. It may be one of the reasons why, in particular, the quest for restitution of specific cultural objects is deemed to be so important, despite efforts to also explore alternative 'fair and just solutions', as indicated in the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art of 1998. With reference to ideas of the German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), this paper explores the value of restitution in more detail. How could these ideas be helpful in understanding and perhaps overcoming legal obstacles in the present on the road to restitution of objects from colonial collections?
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-7
Number of pages7
JournalSSRN Electronic Journal
Issue numberMarch 10
Publication statusPublished - 10 Mar 2020

Bibliographical note

This lecture has been presented on 11 December 2019 at ‘The Restitution Dialogues: A Transnational Conversation on Cultural Loss, Return and Renewal’, Faculty of Law, Tel Aviv University, 11-12 December 2019. An earlier version of this lecture was delivered on 2 December 2019 at ‘Restitution of Colonial Collections in Europe. Possibilities, Challenges, Dilemma’s’, Faculty of Arts and Philosophy, Ghent University, 2-3 December 2019.


  • cultural heritage
  • colonialism
  • Property rights
  • Restitution
  • Walter Benjamin
  • War crimes
  • historic injustice

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