Watch John Oliver make the case for a new frontier in the fight against restitution: Revenge Looting

John Oliver wants to create an institution that would allow countries to steal cultural objects from Western nations that once looted them.

The “Last Week Tonight” host laid out his plan on Sunday night, at the conclusion of a long episode which aimed at museums and the corruption of modern antiques market. Oliver’s targets included Sotheby’s, the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, each of which owned or sold unethically sourced overseas cultural heritage items.

The entire episode is available for free at Youtube.

One segment featured a documentary clip of Rubin Museum of Art executive director Jorrit Britschgi, who was asked if his institution had worked with Deepak Shakya, a dealer convicted of selling stolen items. “I don’t think we should answer that question,” Britschgi replied sheepishly, almost as if he was taking a lie detector test.

From there, the host began a broader discussion about why Western cultural institutions urgently need to consider the colonial heritage of their own collections.

“The fact is,” Oliver said, “museums should be asked hard questions about all aspects of their acquisition process and their collections in a long-awaited conversation about where their items and if anyone wants them back.”

“While obviously museums shouldn’t violate the law, neither should they violate basic moral decency,” he continued. “There are so many things we need to do to address the past and present damage of colonialism. But that really should be the easy part.

The episode ended with Oliver pitching for the Payback Museum – and he enlisted fellow comedian Kumail Nanjiani to do it.

In a special video segment, Nanjiani took us on a tour of the hypothetical location, which he called “the world’s first public museum dedicated to offering recourse to nations who have been plundered of their greatest treasures throughout history by colonial assholes”.

Among the artifacts on display in the halls of the Payback Museum was a section of Stonehenge stolen by Nigeria as punishment for the 1897 sacking of the city. Kingdom of Benin by British troops; and the Liberty Bell, stolen by Peru in response to the United States’ illegal export of ancient indigenous textiles.

“It’s a collection about disconnecting people,” Nanjiani explained. “Specifically disconnecting Western countries from their shit – you know, like they’ve done with everyone else.”

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:


Want to stay one step ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to receive breaking news, revealing interviews and incisive reviews that move the conversation forward.