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The week in art news – frustrated Belgian experts issue their own restitution guidelines

Plus: Whitney Museum of Art recognises a union | Hobby Lobby is suing Dirk Obbink over alleged papyrus theft | and first prehistoric animal carvings found in Scotland

4 June 2021

On 2 June, an independent panel of experts published a report calling for the government to fund a comprehensive survey of colonial collections in Belgium and – pointing to official efforts in Germany and the Netherlands – recommending the setting up of a commission to evaluate requests for restitution. It also cites the need for new legislation to make returns possible. The report was ‘born out of a frustration at the lack of initiative on the part of museums and the government’, Sarah Van Beurden, one of the its authors, told the Art Newspaper. In its summary, the report states that the injustices of the colonial era ‘cannot be undone by acts of restitution alone […] In other words, restitution is part of a wider reconciliation and reparation process’.

The Whitney Museum of Modern Art has voluntarily recognised the union that nearly 200 of its employees have declared they wish to join. The decision means that staff need not hold and win a vote organised by the National Labor Relations board. Other museums where staff are currently organising union drives include the Brooklyn Museum and the Hispanic Society of America. Meanwhile in Philadelphia, workers at the Penn Museum are also seeking union recognition and, at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, the director, president and chair of the board of trustees have issued a statement declaring that while they respect the right of employees to organise, they will wait for the results of any vote (and work with the union if it is successful).

Hobby Lobby is suing Dirk Obbink, a former lecturer in papyrology and Greek literature at Oxford who is accused of allegedly stealing ancient biblical texts from the Egyptian Exploration Society at Oxford University. According to the suit, filed in a New York district court, Hobby Lobby paid Obbink more than $7m in a series of transactions between 2010–13, while the American arts and crafts retailer was building its collection of artefacts for the planned Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. The suit states that an ‘unknown number’ of the papyri fragments purchased from Obbink during this period were stolen, making the entire collection ‘unsalable and worthless’.

An amateur archaeologist has stumbled across the earliest known prehistoric animal carvings in Scotland, found in the Dunchraigaig Cairn in Kilmartin Glen. The carvings, which appear to depict two red male deer and several fawns, are thought to date to the Neolithic or Early Bronze Age, some 4,000–5,000 years ago. The discovery was authenticated by Scotland’s Rock Art Project, hosted by Historic Environment Scotland.

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