Has the Time Come to Return Some Works of Art to Their Countries of Origin? A Talk by Etienne Clément

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About this lecture

“One of the most noble incarnations of a people’s genius is its cultural heritage, built up over the centuries by the work of its architects, sculptors, painters, engravers, goldsmiths and all the creators of forms, who have contrived to give tangible expression to the many-sided beauty and uniqueness of that genius. The vicissitudes of history have nevertheless robbed many peoples of a priceless portion of this inheritance in which their enduring identity finds its embodiment”

This was the preamble of an Appeal launched in 1978 by the then Director-General of UNESCO. Since then, countless negotiations have been held all over the world, seeking the restitution of cultural objects particularly significant for the people of their country of origin. The 1988 restitution to Thailand of the Phra Narai lintel from Phnom Rung testifies to a successful outcome. In countless other cases, discussions from decades ago are still ongoing, witness Greece seeking the return of the Parthenon Marbles (“Elgin Marbles”), on display in London for more than 200 years. Last year, French President Macron raised the issue of restitution to Bénin of works of art appropriated during the African colonization. The enthusiastic reaction from Africa spread to other former colonies but met with resistance in France. The two opposing views contend that these works of art have entered the former colonial powers’ heritage and cannot be returned, and conversely, that their return, partial or total, would be fair and equitable. Etienne Clément, who has been in charge of this dossier at UNESCO, will provide some background to this thorny issue, with thoughts of his own.

Office Hours: Tuesday – Saturday 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.

The Siam Society is deeply grateful to the James H.W. Thompson Foundation for its generous support of the 2018-2019 Lecture Series.



Mr Etienne Clément is a Belgian international lawyer and was a UNESCO staff member in 1984-2015. He contributed to the development of international legal standards and international Conventions for the protection of cultural heritage. In the late 1990s he worked in the Secretariat of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for the Return of Cultural Property to their Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation. From 1998 he was successively UNESCO Representative to Cambodia, Deputy Director Field operations (UNESCO HQ, Paris), Deputy Director Regional Asia Pacific Bureau (Bangkok) and Director for Pacific States. He resides in Bangkok and actively promotes cultural heritage through lectures and publications.


Thursday, 27 June 2019 | 7.00 p.m.


The Siam Society, 131 Asoke Montri Rd, Sukhumvit 21


THB 200 – Non-members donation

FREE OF CHARGE – For Siam Society members, members’ spouses and children & all students with valid student ID cards.

For more information, please contact Khun Arunsri or info@siam-society.org

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