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This could be monumental

Motivations get tangled as countries tussle over the return of artifacts. A telling case in point: the Obelisk of Axum.

January 06, 2006|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

Elias Wondimu has heard that Italian leaders want North America's museums to hand back dozens of artifacts that came from Italian soil, and he's not ready to argue about that.

In fact, says Wondimu, a 32-year-old Ethiopian expat, Hollywood resident and publisher of history books, he'd rather be talking about peacemaking and good government than cultural tugs of war. But if there's going to be a global debate over Italy and cultural patrimony, he has three words to contribute:

"Obelisk of Axum."

The Obelisk of Axum is an elaborately inscribed stone monolith, 78 feet from base to tip, that spent most of the 20th century in the middle of a busy Roman piazza. In the eyes of many an Ethiopian, it's 180 tons of evidence that 20th century Italy snapped up treasures in Ethiopia, then resisted their return for half a century with the same lawless zeal that Italian leaders accuse U.S. museums of displaying.

In early 2005, after nearly 60 years of promises deferred, Italian leaders delivered the obelisk back to its homeland, where it awaits reconstruction.

"We were very, very happy to return the obelisk," said a spokeswoman at the Italian Embassy in Washington, citing "our important and excellent relationship with Ethiopia." Some scholars have hailed the event as a crucial international precedent.

But many Ethiopians contend that Italy is still holding other stolen treasures from the 1930s, including pages from Ethiopia's national archives and Ethiopia's first airplane, now apparently held by an Italian aviation museum outside Rome.

"It's quite ironic for me to see them try to reclaim what they've lost while they are keeping others from reclaiming stolen property," Wondimu said.

The Italian spokeswoman declined to comment on the other contested items. In holding the obelisk over the years, Italian officials have cited many factors, including Ethiopia's political instability and the logistical challenges of returning such a massive object.

In many respects, the case of the prodigal obelisk is a bit of singular history. But it's also a potent reminder that the more time you spend counting up claims of archeological injustice, the harder it gets to separate victims from villains.

"It is easier to ask for something that belongs to you than to return what belongs to someone else," says Richard Pankhurst, a professor at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University, who has been calling upon Italy to return items for more than 20 years.

"This not an easy issue for the world to resolve," says Ronald Olson, the Los Angeles attorney hired by the Getty Trust to help make peace between the Getty and the Italian and Greek governments. "How many times have you visited the British Museum?"

For decades, Greek officials have been demanding that the British Museum return the Elgin Marbles, a series of sculptures taken from Greece in the 19th century.

In North America, arguments over museum pieces have flared for nearly as long. The center of controversy now is the J. Paul Getty Museum and dozens of objects it bought or was given in the 1990s. Getty leaders and former antiquities curator Marion True say they never bought anything they knew had been illegally collected. Italian prosecutors, now trying True and dealer Robert E. Hecht Jr. in Rome, say they'll produce evidence showing that they did know.

One key to that case is an Italian law, passed under fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in 1939, that bans export of objects excavated since that year. But in Los Angeles, on the stretch of Fairfax Avenue known as Little Ethiopia, it's other deeds of Mussolini in the 1930s that many Ethiopians prefer to talk about.

"Ah, that war," said Alem Abebe, behind the counter of the Safari Ethiopian Store, when asked about Italy's 1935 invasion and later withdrawal. "You hear about it all the time, how they beat the Italians. The Italians came, they bombed, they gassed.... But in the end, the Ethiopians won."

Next door at Nile Services, owner Meshesha Biru, 55, knows all about the obelisk -- he has a master's degree in international relations -- and is eager to see what comes next. "Once you whet your appetite, you go for all the things that have been taken by force," Biru said.

"It's a calculated amnesia," said Wondimu, marveling at Italy's posture as he tucked into a traditional Ethiopian dinner at Meals by Genet.

When Mussolini's troops invaded Ethiopia, their leader wanted to pick up a few tons of souvenirs, just as Roman emperors did on their adventures into Egypt and Mesopotamia in days of old. So in 1937, when Italian troops came across the monolith in the city of Axum (or Aksum), they brought it back to Italy. Then they put it up in the Piazza di Porta Capena, not far from the Colosseum, where it stood as a reminder of Italian colonial ambition, just across the street from the Ministry for Italian Africa.

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