Easter Island Mayor surprises by opposing return of stolen statue

Keep the statue you stole from us 150 years ago, the Mayor of Easter Island has told London’s British Museum.

It is not often that Art Law & More reports on a restitution case where the victim concedes their cultural property is best left in the hands of those who unlawfully removed it. However, that is the view of Pedro Edmunds Paoa, Mayor of Easter Island (or Rapa Nui as it is ancestrally named). He believes a ‘Moai’ statue taken from Easter Island in 1868 by Richard Powell, the captain of HMS Topaze, should remain in the collection of the British Museum to ensure its conservation.

One of 900 ‘Moai’ (meaning ‘ancestors) carved by islanders between 1100 and 1600 AD, the seven-foot tall basalt statue is known as ‘Hoa Hakananai’a’ (meaning ‘lost or stolen friend’). Captain Powell removed the statue from its ancestral home and presented it to Queen Victoria as a gift who later offered it to the British Museum. ‘Moai’ are viewed by some members of the indigenous population of Easter Island as the embodiment of ancient ancestors. Only last month, a delegation of Easter Island dignitaries and officials from Chile visited London to call for the restitution of the artefact.

The Mayor of Easter Island believes that returning the ‘stolen friend’ to its former home would jeopardize its survival. He argues that the remaining statues on Easter Island have been “buried, ignored and discarded” and are vulnerable to the destructive effects of tropical rains and wind. While Easter Island struggles to protect its artefacts, the Mayor says the British Museum is equipped to conserve and exhibit the iconic statue for millions of visitors to view it. In lieu of restitution, he is seeking a financial commitment from the British Museum to support the conservation of the monuments that remain on Easter Island.

Art Law & More is eager to see whether the Mayor’s stance will be used as ammunition by the Museum to argue for the retention of all artefacts unlawfully removed from foreign countries.

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