Artifacts that can be definitively proved to be stolen (such as many treasures from Egypt's pyramids) should have their countries given an opportunity to retrieve them if they so desire. The historical facts of possession are not morally correct; as #5 points out, a stolen rug is a stolen rug, no matter what the owner was doing with it at the time. If the country wishes to take them back and sell them, sit on them, hide them, or destroy them, that is their right. Even when it would be of terrible historical loss.
However, I would also have the possessing country offer the origin country a fair sale price or even a rental price to keep and maintain the artifacts. This would allow the artifacts to be maintained as long as they are considered of value, and for the origin country to officially be compensated for their loss.
I understand and appreciate many of the arguments here, but I think this issue is more indicative of a larger problem facing society. The question is "Should nations or individuals be held accountable for the sins of their ancestors, and to what degree are the responsible for restitution?"
I am a firm believer that for our nation, and world, to move forward at some point a governing body has to step forward and make the declaration that the past is behind us and we must look to the future. Right, wrong, good, or bad we can not move forward as a society if people continue to look to right societal wrongs of the past.
I will use an analogy similar to the post above to demonstrate my point. Here in Texas I am sure there are many artifacts in museums that Mexico could make a claim to. Perhaps they should be given back. Then again, Mexico could make a claim that it should still have a claim to Texas since it lost the territory as a result of the Texas Revolution. Of course, now Spain wants Mexico back since we are making history right, but of course they took it from the Aztecs so perhaps the land should revert to those indigenous inhabitants. The Aztecs, however, were warlike and so they took the land from other tribes. The point is that the past is behind us and if we continue to look back there will continue to be problems.
In the case of an Egyptian artifact (lets say a golden cat) that was "stolen" from the country, I wonder about the slave labor used to obtain the gold that probably wasn't from Egypt. Once the artifact is returned to Egypt, should they seek out the nation robbed by Egypt of the gold and return it to them?
Let us pretend that I break into someone’s house and steal a rug, or maybe a random piece of artwork. When I am caught by the police, I admit that yes I stole the item from the home, but no, I am not willing to return it. When they ask why, I inform them that I noticed that the homeowners were not performing regular maintenance on the item that I stole. I also state that I noticed that they have several small children in the home who I believe pose an additional threat to the safety of the item. However, I inform the police that once the original owners of the stolen object demonstrate to me that they can be responsible owners, then I would be willing to return the item.
I know it is not a perfect analogy, but you get the idea. If you beleive that stolen items should be returned to their owner, then return them. Just because an item is fragile or has extreme historical or artistic value shouldn't change the argument.
I find this issue a difficult one. To some countries, these artifacts have been national treasures, it’s true. But they belong to other nations. The difficult part for me comes in returning these artifacts to potentially unstable countries, where they might be damaged.
Take Egypt for example. The country is not the most stable. The “Arab Spring” is a good thing, in some ways, but it also involves violence and uncertainty, and we don’t know who will win. Do we really want to risk losing treasures that are meaningful not just to Egypt, but to mankind?
I think a solution would be to hold the artifacts in trust in museums in other countries, wherever they are now, and then return them at a later date.
Interestingly enough, some archeologists actually make it their mission to return artifacts to the countries they came from. Zahi Hawass, the head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, delights in bringing artifacts home.
"People can think that the best moment in the life of an archaeologist is actually to discover something," Hawass said. "But for me, the best thing is to return something to Egypt."
In the end, I believe we need to find some way to bring the artifacts home, once it is safe.
This question has more than one obvious side to it, as pohnpei has already suggested. Firstly, there are the moral and ethical sides of the question: should artifacts be in and stay in their home territory? I don't think there are many today who would agree that artifacts might be taken or would permit currently discovered artifacts--at a currently active archaeological site--to leave the nation in which the are discovered. Thus the answer has very well been resolved definitively with the moral and ethical answer: Yes, artifacts should be in and stay in their home territories.
Secondly, there are the practical sides of the question: Is it safe and wise to transport delicate artifacts from "adoptive" countries back to original owner countries and, once transported, will they remain safe? This is much harder to answer. If the answer to the first part (safe for transport) for any given artifact is "No," there may always be suspicious doubt as to ulterior motives. If the answer to the second part (safe future conditions) is "No," there may be protest that it is part of a nation's destiny to undergo and face destruction and that its destiny should be allowed to move forward unimpeded.
Since there is no easy answer to this complex question, decisions are taken on a case by case basis as there can be no one immediately apparent answer.
My general answer to this is yes. I think that anything taken from one country by another should be returned. The only caveat here is that I would want to make sure the country to which the artifact would be returned was ready to care for it. For example, I would be very cautious about wanting to return things to Iraq right now for fear their government would be unable to protect and maintain the artifacts.
What gets a little less clear is determining what was “stolen.” Was something stolen if a government that was then in power allowed it to leave? These are tougher questions than those regarding clear cases of theft like those thefts committed by the Nazis of art works in Europe.