By David Ng
10:06 AM EDT, May 8, 2013
A collection of artwork by aboriginal Australian children that was given to Colgate University in 1966 is being voluntarily returned to Australia. The upstate New York school said Tuesday that it would transfer 119 pieces from the collection to Curtin University in Perth in Western Australia.
Colgate said it obtained the art from alumnus Herbert Mayer, a New York businessman and collector. Mayer had purchased the works from Florence Rutter, a benefactor of Australia's Carrolup Native School and Settlement, where the art was created between 1945 and 1951.
The art pieces were created by Noongar aboriginal students who were part of Australia's "stolen generation." These youth were forcibly taken from their families and sent to specially designated camps and schools.
Colgate exhibited some of the artwork at its Picker Art Gallery in 2005. The show drew international attention to the pieces.
Ellen Percy Kraly, a professor of geography at Colgate, initiated the discussions between the two universities for the return of the works. The schools said discussions took more than a year, with help from the Mungart Boodja organization, a nonprofit group in Australia devoted to indigenous art and culture.
"We are grateful that Colgate sees the deep and enduring value in returning the art to Noongar country," Curtin University Vice Chancellor Professor Jeanette Hacket said in a statement.
The two universities said they had signed a memorandum of agreement that will provide for the conservation and exhibition of the art.
The repatriation of artwork can be a contentious affair, especially when valuable antiquities are involved. Earlier this month, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York said it would return two ancient statues to Cambodia after receiving convincing evidence that they had been illegally looted and smuggled out of the country.
Cambodian officials are still seeking the return of a matching statue that is on display at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena.
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