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Colonialism’s last battle: to the victor go the spoils?

Colonialism has some unfinished business. Like a messy divorce, former partners scratch and claw for who gets what and all too often the colonized lost. Their treasures were stolen; their cultural heritage and national heirlooms were boxed up and shipped to places such as France and the United Kingdom. Now, the fights over who gets ...

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AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - DECEMBER 20: Dutch Crown Prince Willem Alexander (L) and Prince Jorge Guillermo (2L) receive a tour during the opening of 'Hidden Afghanistan' Exhibition on December 20, 2007 in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. The exhibition presents 250 archaeological objects, providing a bird's-eye view of the country from the 2nd millenium BC to the Buddhist dynasty of the Kushana, 1st to 3rd dynasty AD. (Photo by Michel Porro/Getty Images)

Colonialism has some unfinished business. Like a messy divorce, former partners scratch and claw for who gets what and all too often the colonized lost. Their treasures were stolen; their cultural heritage and national heirlooms were boxed up and shipped to places such as France and the United Kingdom. Now, the fights over who gets custody of these artifacts are starting to sway in favor of the former colonies.

Some 2,000 Afghan artifacts went on display at The National Museum in Kabul on October 6, some as old as the bronze-age. These items were stolen and smuggled into Britain while the two countries fought a brutal war.  The museum was founded in the 1920s, after Afghanistan gained autonomy from the British Empire.

The New York Times reports Afghanistan was a treasure trove for ancient wares, given its geographical placement as a crossroads between China, India, the middle-east and Persia. In the early 1990s, after the Soviet invasion and civil war, the museum’s director estimated 70 percent of the artifacts were stolen. Then in the name of Islam, the Taliban destroyed ancient statues of Buddha. The 2,000 pieces from the United Kingdom join nearly 13,000 returned from all over Western Europe and the United States after the Taliban fell in 2001.

Returned treasures don’t always come so easily. The French government will return five ancient fresco fragments to Egypt after Cairo threatened to end cooperation with the Louvre. Egyptian authorities say the French bought the frescos in 1990, even though they knew they were stolen in the 1980s.

In a move of cultural sanctions, a British museum isn’t returning an artifact to Iran due to the “post-election situation.”  Iran threatened to cut off cultural cooperation if it isn’t returned. The item in question, 6th century BC cylinder is engraved with what is called the first bill of rights. The Persian King Cyrus ordered it to be made. The British say they plan to return the cylinder, but they are just waiting for the “appropriate moment.” The Iranians said their delay is just a ploy keep the cylinder and they will end their relationship with the museum if it isn’t returned within two months.

Michel Porro/Getty Images

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