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Coleman, Elizabeth Burns, and . Repatriation and the Concept of Inalienable Possession

2010, In The Long Way Home, edited by Paul Turnbull and Michael Pickering: Berghan Books.

Summary: The concept of inalienable possession often figures centrally in debates about repatriation of cultural artifacts (which are also often artworks). The right of alienability (or the right to transfer title to property) is one of the core rights in Western property theory. If property is inalienable, this means that title to it cannot rightly be transferred. In this paper, Coleman analyzes the concept of inalienable possession, and argues that laws (such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)) can foist a conception of inalienable possession on indigenous peoples that can be inaccurate to past and changing cultural norms. She uses this point to offer a distinction between property and ownership. This opens up conceptual space for a link between objects and identity through ownership that might nevertheless allow for the alienability of such property.

Comment: This paper is best for a course unit that is making room for in-depth discussion of the property dimensions of cultural property. It would pair well with Janna Thompson's "Art, Property Rights, and the Interests of Humanity," or James O. Young's "Cultures and Cultural Property." It can be also used together with or in lieu of Sarah Harding's much longer and more detailed paper "Justifying Repatriation of Native American Cultural Property."

Thompson, Janna, and . Art, Property Rights, and the Interests of Humanity

2004, Journal of Value Inquiry 38(4): 545-560.

Summary: In this paper, Thompson sets up a potential tension between two kinds of cases. On the one hand, we might think it is wrong for a wealthy collector to destroy great works of Western art that have value for all of humanity. On the other hand, we might think it is acceptable for indigenous peoples to rebury or ritually destroy artifacts from their culture, even though these works might also have value for all of humanity. How do we reconcile these intuitions? After discussing and dismissing attempts to resolve the problem by appeal to the value of the property for its possessors or the desires of non-owners, Thompsons suggests that by looking at the value of art in the context of different cultural traditions we can see why a certain universalism about the value of art will tell against allowing the destruction of artwork by the wealthy collector, but allow for the reburial or destruction of artifacts by certain indigenous communities.

Comment: This paper pairs well with Kwame Anthony Appiah's 'Whose Culture Is It, Anyway?' or Peter Lindsay's "Can We Own the Past? Cultural Artifacts as Public Goods." It is particularly good at engaging questions about the universal value of art and its implications for ownership introduced in those texts.