Geert Lovink on Sun, 2 Dec 2007 02:02:39 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> The Price of Priceless Objects

(fwd. on the request of cecile landman. /geert)

The Price of Priceless Objects

Stop Press: Ten crates containing rare archaeological treasures of 
Bangladesh have been bundled out of the national museum and are said to 
be bound for Guimet Museum in Paris, via flight AF 6731 (dep: 1205 
Saturday 1st Dec 2007). Preparations had been made to secretly remove 
the items through a shipment order by the French Embassy made to 
Homebound Packers and Shippers. Trucks and forklift arrive secretly in 
museum in early hours of morning. But the news leaked and media 
professionals and protesters gathered outside the museum. Under heavy 
police presence Homebound vehicles (Dhaka Metro Umo 11-0814, pho 11 
3634, U 14 0187) and fork lift trucks all bearing “Save The Children 
and USAID Cyclone Sidr Emergency Relief ” signs were used to remove the 
priceless items. Predictably, and as in the case of all previous 
authoritarian governments, while the story was the lead news in all 
major newspapers and independent television channels. BTV the state run 
television channel which is the only terrestrial channel in Bangladesh, 
failed to report the incident altogether.


Letter To French Government & Citizens (December 1, 2007)

To The French Government & Citizens

Subject: Musee Guimet’s Non-Transparent Borrowing of Priceless 
Artifacts from Bangladesh

We the undersigned artists, archeologists, anthropologists, academics & 
other concerned citizens of Bangladesh are writing to express our 
strong objection to the manner in which Musee Guimet of Paris is taking 
invaluable artifacts from the national museum and four other leading 
museums of Bangladesh for a planned show entitled “Masterpieces of the 
Ganges delta”. The Musee Guimet transported the artifacts even after 
widespread protests and a pending citizens’ lawsuit in the Bangladesh 
court. The manner in which the artifacts were transported, in a secret 
crating during early morning hours under police guard, added to the 
controversy. As news of the secret shipment leaked out, protesters 
gathered to form a human chain, and one protester was arrested. 
Finally, the first shipment of 10 crates of rare archaeological 
treasures was taken away, despite resistance, to be flown to Paris on 
December 1st on an Air France cargo plane. There is also a second 
shipment of 13 crates which is still pending.

While the exhibition, which has been billed as being of outstanding 
quality, and consists of the most prized objects from all the major 
museums of Bangladesh, it is not part of an exchange programme. The 
only items that the Bangladeshi people will receive in return are 20 
exhibition catalogues.

The lack of transparency surrounding the planned exhibition at Musee 
Guimet includes allegations of under-valuation of artifacts to the 
scale of hundreds of millions of dollars, lack of accession numbers on 
numerous objects, improper and incomplete cataloguing (e.g., referring 
to a set of coins as merely “coins”, with no numbers given), 
inconsistency between documents, missing descriptions, and descriptions 
that do not conform to international standards. The official insurance 
value of the entire collection (stated to be “189 pieces” by the French 
Embassy) has been set at 4 million Euros for the purposes of this 
exhibition loan. Such a low insurance value for such a large 
collection, which dates back to the 4th century BC, has been described 
by an international archaeological expert as “financial fraud”. Even if 
this incorrect valuation had been completed by the Bangladesh 
authorities, one questions why an international museum would accept 
such a patently incorrect valuation. Most worrying of all, the number 
of pieces identified in documentation created by the French 
photographer who catalogued the exhibit does not match with the 
contract signed by the French Ambassador. The number of artifacts in 
the contract in turn does not match with the official press releases 
from the Dhaka French Embassy.

The controversy over the improper handling of the loan escalated over 
the last two months, resulting in a citizens’ lawsuit (still pending in 
court) and Bangladesh citizens’ group’s demanded that the Bangladesh 
government and French authorities allowed experts to inspect the items 
as per international standards. The Bangladesh government asked the 
expert committee that is investigating the matter for time until 
January 15th, 2008 to respond to the committee’s queries. 
Astonishingly, the Musee Guimet began shipment of the artifacts on 30th 
November, 2007 — a full 45 days before the expiry of the Bangladesh 
government’s self-imposed deadline. The Bangladesh government and 
French Embassy officials have, without informing either the committee 
or the media, taken the items out of the museum in the surprise 
shipment described earlier.

Musee Guimet is one of 18 museums that have jointly signed a separate 
Declaration on Importance and Value of Universal Museums, which opposes 
returning art works, especially ancient ones, to their original owners. 
This is in direct opposition to the UNESCO Convention on Stolen and 
Illegally Exported Cultural Objects (1995). This is particularly 
relevant since the convention was based on the high incidence of theft 
that was prevailing. Bangladesh was identified as one of the three most 
vulnerable countries to such threats. Kwame Opoku’s recent statement 
“Musée Guimet in Paris which incidentally also holds thousands of 
stolen/illegal objects from China and the rest of Asia” has increased 
citizen debate about the lending.

The French embassy in Bangladesh has dismissed the protesters’ concern 
and said “local procedure in connection with the lending is an internal 
matter of the Bangladesh government” and there is “no risk in lending 
artifacts”. The embassy also dismissed the protests as “eminent 
citizens with mixed qualifications, many far outside the field of 
archaeology, or with little experience of international exhibitions.” 
Guimet director Jean-Francois Jarriage and curator of the show Vincent 
Lefevre refused to meet with Shahidul Alam, a delegate from the 
protesters, who traveled to Paris for the purposes of securing an 
explanation. In his own statement, Jean-Francois Jarriage mentions that 
in the late 50’s he had worked in the department of archeology here. 
Incidentally, it was during that period that one of the most prized 
artefacts, a relic casket, of our country, was taken to France for 
restoration. Mr. Zakaria, former secretary of the ministry of culture, 
who was then working in the archeology department has since campaigned 
for the return of the casket, but has failed to get a response from the 
French government over the last 49 years.

The original show at Musée National des Arts Asiatiques - Guimet was 
billed as “Masterpieces of the Ganges delta. Collections from the 
Bangladesh Museums.” The original scheduled dates for the show were 
24th October 2007 to 3rd May 2008. The controversy has pushed back the 
date of the show, but as of today Musee Guimet remains adamant about 
showing the work without satisfying the demands of the concerned 
Bangladeshi citizens.

While we were originally open to the idea of showing the work at Musee 
Guimet provided the transparency issues were addressed, the recent 
actions of the museum has removed any semblance of trust in the 
organisation, and we are no longer willing to loan our prized 
possessions to an organisation with such standards of behaviour. The 
incident, originally restricted to the issue of an exhibition now 
appears to have created a general distrust in the French government 
amongst the Bangladeshi public.


A. K. M. Zakaria, archeologist and former secretary, ministry of 
cultural affairs, GOB.
Nazimuddin Ahmed, archeologist, former director, department of 
archeology, GOB.
Shamsuzzaman Khan, museologist, former director general, Bangladesh 
National Museum.
Bulbon Osman, art historian, former director institute of fine arts, 
Dhaka University.
Syed Jahangir, painter, former director, department of fine arts, 
Shilpakala Academy (Academy of Fine and Performing Arts), GOB.
Borhanuddin Khan Jahangir, art historian, former pro vice chancellor, 
National University of Bangladesh.
A. K. M. Shahnawaz, professor, department of archeology, Jahangirnagar 
3. Concerns regarding the risk in lending artefacts to the Guimet 
Museum, Paris

by Serajul Islam Choudhury, AKM Zakaria, Shamsuzzaman Khan and Lala 
Rukh Selim

The following points are addressed with regards to the explanation of 
the French Embassy in Dhaka (published in New Age, page 10, dated 
November 24 and The Daily Star, page 16, dated November 24, 2007, 
entitled “Artefact issue—French embassy clarification” and “French 
Embassy says no risk in lending artefacts” respectively) in response to 
the news conference by what the Embassy dubbed “some art connoisseurs, 
artists and activists”.

1. The explanation states “the local procedure in connection with the 
lending is an internal matter of the Bangladesh government on which it 
(the French Embassy) has nothing to say”. It should be noted that 
France is a developed and powerful nation in distinct contrast to 
Bangladesh, a ‘third world, underprivileged country. From an ethical 
perspective, the French Embassy as a representative of the Government 
of France does bear a moral responsibility, even if the local procedure 
is an internal matter of the Bangladesh Government. After all, is it 
not bad practice to steal candy from a baby? The adult is to blame when 
an immoral act is perpetrated. It is neither acceptable nor 
understandable why an adult pleads in that situation should plead 

2. The French Embassy thanks the far-sighted partners who have worked 
for the resdeepening of cultural relations of the countries for ‘mutual 
benefit’. Here it is to be noted that no benefit is perceptible to the 
people of Bangladesh as they say are not borrowing any artefact from 
France in exchange for the priceless collection of Bangladeshi 
artefacts which is now in question. In fact, Bangladesh is not 
receiving any financial benefit as royalty from the exhibition. 
Bangladesh will receive only 20 copies of the catalogue to be published 
for the exhibition. Therefore, the ‘mutual benefit’ is a very 
questionable issue.

3. Unfortunately, even the recent history of France presents many 
examples where countless artefacts claimed as heritage by the nations 
they have come from have not been returned. In fact, the Musee Guimet 
is one of the 18 museums which has jointly signed a separate 
Declaration on Importance and Value of Universal Museums which opposes 
returning art-works, especially ancient ones, to their original owners. 
This is in direct opposition to the UNESCO Convention on Stolen and 
Illegally Exported Cultural Objects 1995 which laid down regulations 
that stolen or illegally excavated objects shall be returned to the 
owners (nations, natural or legal persons), cultural objects exported 
illicitly shall restituted upon request of the country of origin if it 
can prove that the illegal export would have an essential impact on 
scientific and cultural interests or that the object is of essential 
cultural significance for the country of origin.

As to the Musee Guimet, it is to be noted that it ‘holds thousands of 
stolen/illegal objects from China and the rest of Asia’.

‘France, . . . are known as dumping grounds for stolen art because of 
laws regarding ownership of stolen property, according to Ellis: 
“France, . . . are known as ‘good faith’ countries – their laws say if 
you buy in good faith, you buy title to the object, not withstanding 
the fact that it was stolen” (

Also to be considered is the Reuters report to affect that French 
Culture Minister Christine Albanel has called for adapting existing 
laws to focus more closely on theft and vandalism in museums and 
heritage sites as the soaring prices for major robberies in recent 

Because the Guimet has not signed the UNESCO Convention and in view of 
the above reports, serious doubts may be cast on its credibility and 
ethics in an exchange with Bangladesh which has already gone against 
the ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums where it is stated, “Museums should 
conform to all national and local laws and respect them and affect 
their operation”. Let it suffice to say that there is enough evidence 
and controversy regarding the Musee Guimet not to put it beyond 
suspicion. These facts cannot be ridiculous or insulting, they can only 
deepen the existing concerns.

4. As for there never being any accusations against the National 
Museums of France, like Guimet, for substituting a fake for the 
original, only example will be cited here to invalidate this claim. The 
Louvre is refusing Turkish request for return of Ottoman tiles which 
were retained for restoration and though most originals were returned, 
some were replaced by copies bearing French patents on the reverse. 
Therefore, such spurious statements should not be made by the Embassy 
of France.

5. Last but not the least, the Embassy of France has said that a small 
number of “eminent citizens with mixed qualifications, many far outside 
the field of archaeology, or with little experience of international 
exhibitions, have been using all means possible to stop the exhibition 
from happening …”. Unfortunately, this concern for the right 
qualifications of those remotely concerned with the national heritage 
or patrimony of the country would have been more understandable if the 
lack of involvement of such professionals and experts from Bangladesh 
side during the selection, identification, cataloguing and other stages 
of the plan of the exhibition had not taken. The French Embassy should 
be aware that each and every citizen of a country has a right over its 
heritage and even a farmer or labourer can demand a say on patrimony 
(property inherited from ancestors , heritage). It should also be noted 
that the art of the past is not the sole preserve of the 
archaeologists. Any person in the field of culture has to revert to the 
past to understand the present. Perhaps the Embassy of France is 
ignorant about the qualifications and scope of the persons they are 
alluding to.

Moreover, Mr AKM Zakaria, a pioneer and reputed archaeologist as well 
as the former secretary to the Ministry of Culture, Bangladesh was the 
main organiser of the November 22 News Conference. In fact he pointed 
out how a relic casket found in Mainamati in 1958-59 was sent to France 
for restoration and has still not been returned after many dialogues. 
Many other archeologists and related professionals have strongly 
opposed the exhibition among whom Mr Nazimuddin, Mr Shamsuzzaman Khan, 
Prof. Shahnewaz and others may be named. Let it suffice to say that 
culture encompasses all spheres of human activities, and that a 
country’s heritage is shared by all its citizens. If even the smallest 
group of ‘eminent’ citizens are concerned about the security of our 
precious heritage, it should suffice to say that they represent the 
concerns of many more.

1. Professor Serajul Islam Choudhury,
English Department
Dhaka University

2. Mr AKM Zakaria
Archaeologist and former secretary to the Ministry of Culture, 

3. Professor Shamsuzzaman Khan
Former Director General
National Museum, Bangladesh

4. Ms. Lala Rukh Selim
Associate Professor
Institute of Fine Art
Dhaka University

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