I decided to investigate two very contrasting originator claims for my presentation on restitution. After much book surfing and procrastination I finally settled on the Koh-i-Noor Diamond and the Icelandic Manuscripts as case studies. These cases leaped out of the pages at me. I was hooked by the history and political intrigue that surrounds both.
The Koh-i-Noor, or mountain of light diamond has a very murky history and is currently owned by the British Monarchy as part of the Crown Jewels. The diamond was originally mined in India, yet over the centuries has also resided in Persia and Pakistan. India and Pakistan have both made several for repatriation since the 1970s. However, there’s currently no valid legal case, international support or even political appetite to pursue any claims against the British Monarchy at present.
On the other hand, the Icelandic Manuscripts were successfully repatriated to their native Iceland. These expansive medieval documents tell of Scandinavian culture, Norse mythology, historical poetry and epic sagas. Written in Icelandic, these books and parchments are the cornerstone of written history for the north people. The restitution of these documents found popular support internationally and perhaps most importantly in Norway itself, where they resided at Copenhagen University from the 18th Century. There was in addition, a stronger legal argument and less complicated back story that aided the case for restitution.
I chose the diamond and the manuscripts for the presentation for their stark contrasts, besides their enchanting history. Contrasts lay in the unsuccessful claims over Koh-i-Noor against the successful restitution of the Icelandic Manuscripts. There is a contrast in the materiality of both objects, the eternal diamond against the delicate parchment. Moreover, contrast can be found in the perceived value of each object.
Out of this research and subsequent discussions the notion of value resonated with me. Both objects are bestowed with immeasurable monetary and cultural value. During the repatriation of the Icelandic manuscripts, Norway flew her flags at half-mast in mourning. Similarly, when England flew her flags at half-mast for the Queen Mother’s funeral, the immortal Koh-i-Noor sat on top of her coffin looking out at a world still in love with diamonds.
Koh-i-Noor has outlived more distinguished owners than it has facets. It is partly coveted because of its intrinsic value as a diamond, an eternal object of vast monetary worth. However, the diamond is further coveted because of its romanticism. If it ever made the open market the Russian oligarchs, American brokers and Chinese industrialists would have a feeding frenzy in Christie’s. The recent sale of Elizabeth Taylor’s jewellery is testament to the value placed upon pretty stones with a romantic back story.
Although Koh-i-Noor layers its value in mystery, history, ceremony and its material rarity, it is still only a lump of shiny coal. It is not even in use at present, as we currently have no Queen-Consort to wear it. Although several suggestions were made during the presentation that Prince Philip should at least try it.
Even though the diamond is fabulous, I would argue that the Icelandic Manuscripts are infinitely more valuable than the diamond. They are more valuable because they are the cultural story of the northern people. There are many diamonds but only one stack of Icelandic manuscripts. Their uniqueness, creativity and continued interpretation make them worthy of their place on the UNESCO special preservation registry. I hope the wider economic markets never get chance to bid for them at auction. The hedge funds should stick to the diamonds instead.
Steven Luke Skelley
Images in descending order:
1: The Koh-i-noor diamond, set in the Maltese Cross at the front of the crown made for Britain’s late Queen Mother Elizabeth. (2012) Photograph: AP The Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/india/9531629/Indian-family-launch-court-action-for-return-of-Koh-i-Noor-diamond.html
2: A 13th-century illuminated Icelandic Saga manuscript. (2008) Photograph: Bob Krist/Corbis. www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2008/oct/03/
3: Christie’s auction of Elizabeth Taylor Jewels. (2011) Photograph: Gordon/Bloomberg. http://www.bloomberg.com/photo/christie-s-auction-of-elizabeth-taylor-jewels-/131911.html