Stealing cultural heritage: Examples in history

Picasso inspiration from African culture

There is a fine line between copying or obtaining a piece of another culture’s heritage for one’s own appreciation, and going so far as to profit from it without giving the culture due credit. In some cases, people may not actively seek to profit from cultural theft, but rather have the desire to personally acquire a piece of cultural heritage

The term “cultural appropriation” has been thrown around loosely, usually when it comes to a white person copying aspects of another culture – such as donning a traditional piece of clothing from that culture or eating food from that culture. While some people approve of it and encourage the mutual understanding of different cultures, others are disgusted and believe that the people commonly stereotyped as more “superior” have no business stealing the heritage of other cultures. 

Understandably, there are still harsh feelings revolving around this issue. From certain perspectives, people from privileged cultures – mostly white people – have no business trying to imitate the cultures of people of color, third world countries, or those whose people were disadvantaged in the past. Some would argue that white people already have everything they want and should leave these cultures alone, instead of trying to claim what little these people have as their own. 

However, there are also those who are supportive of intermixing of cultures, as long as it is done respectfully and due credit is given. After all, should we not support those who are genuinely curious and want to learn more about different cultures? How else should we achieve cultural harmony? 

Pablo Picasso

One artist known for skirting around this fine line is Pablo Picasso, who often painted adaptations of African artifacts. It is difficult to say whether he was purely inspired by the artifacts, or if he was painting them with the purpose to plagiarize and steal. In fact, Picasso was quoted as saying, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” Critics believe that at one point in his artistic career, Picasso was exclusively painting African artifacts without giving the original artwork or artist due credit. 

In Johannesburg, what was said to be the largest exhibition of Picasso’s art was put on display, together with the African artifacts he allegedly took inspiration from. 84 artworks from Picasso and 29 African artifacts similar to Picasso’s work were showcased as an “innovative dialogue between Picasso’s work and his African inspiration”. The exhibition attempted to argue that Picasso was simply drawing inspiration from African culture and was not outright stealing any art. However, viewers and art historians noted that Picasso’s work bore a strong resemblance to many of the African artifacts, and stated that if Picasso had not taken and adapted those artifacts without acknowledging the original artists, he would not have achieved the success he had. 

While it is still up for debate whether Picasso was intending to steal cultural heritage or if he was simply painting things that resonated with him, the artist had once famously said, “L’art negre? Connais pas.” This roughly translates to, “African art? Never heard of it.”

Paul Smith

In 2014, the British men’s fashion designer Paul Smith released his “Robert Sandals” – what many people recognized as a take on the traditional Peshawar chappals from Pakistan. The Peshawar sandals have been a trademark of Pakistani culture for centuries. Commonly worn by men on the streets of Pakistan, a pair of Peshawar sandals can be purchased at local bazaars for only a few dollars. Although Peshawar chappals are mostly regarded as old-fashioned in modern times, they still remain a firm part of Pakistani heritage.  

Thus, it came as no surprise that there was a huge backlash upon the release of Paul Smith’s Robert Sandals for around $500. The sandals featured a modified Peshawar chappal design complete with a neon pink trim around the edges, which Pakistanis argued that no traditional chappals would have. Most of the outrage centered on the fact that Paul Smith had failed to acknowledge the Pakistani chappal as the source of inspiration for his new footwear, that he named them “Robert” – not at all Pakistani in nature – and that he tried to market them for hundreds more than the originals would have sold for. 

In response, a petition was signed by 1,580 supporters, asking for Paul Smith to credit his designs or take them off his shelves. Some Pakistanis said that they did not mind that the fashion designer liked the sandals enough to market them as designer footwear, but that he should have properly attributed their origins or at least sold them with their original name. 

Paul Smith declined to comment on the issue publicly, but he did modify the item description on his website to state that the sandals were “inspired by the Peshawari Chappal”. 

Pandora III

In some cases, the stealing of cultural heritage takes on a more literal form. People may not seek to copy or plagiarize other cultures, but simply wish to collect a piece of heritage for their own gain, even if it involves illegal means. Even if the cultural item is bought by a well-meaning buyer, it has likely inadvertently profited an illegal art dealer who acquired the piece only to sell it for profit. 

After rampant trafficking of cultural goods, Europol launched operation Pandora III in 2019 as a means to retrieve these stolen items, which numbered over 18,000. The operation was massive, involving police and customs officers in 29 countries as well as the Spanish Civil Guard. 59 individuals were arrested as a result of this operation. Among the stolen items retrieved were ancient Greek and Roman coins, a Mesopotamian crystal cylinder seal and a Bible from the 15th century. While most of the items were originally from Europe, some were from other countries such as Egypt, Iraq, Colombia and Morocco. 

As its name suggests, Pandora III was not the first operation of its kind. Pandora II was launched a year earlier in 2018, arresting 51 people and recovering more than 41,000 stolen items, while Pandora I resulted in 75 people being apprehended and more than 3,500 objects recovered. 

Unfortunately, Europe is not the only place where items of cultural heritage are trafficked. The market of ancient antiquities takes place all over the world. In fact, there is no designated legal market for dealing with such items – any legally acquired items, which are usually few in number, are often sold together with illegally trafficked items and it can be impossible for even the most discerning to tell them apart. 

In 2019, an ancient Egyptian bust of Tutankhamun was auctioned for 4,746,250 pounds ($5.97 million) at the British auctioneer Christie’s, despite a lack of evidence stating whether the sculpture was legally brought out of Egypt. Last seen in the market in 1985, the bust was allegedly privately owned before making its appearance again after more than 30 years. 

Due to the questionable origins of many ancient items, the market of antiquities is a place where one should tread carefully – being ever aware of the risk that the item in possession could be a stolen good. There is the possibility that the item may be seized and the buyer loses their money, or even be charged with abetting cultural theft.