Dec 11, 2008

Limiting Art and Antiquities Restitution?

So argues Norman Rosenthal in the Art Newspaper today.  The former Exhibitions Secretary at the Royal Academy does not see the merit in the current expansion of restitution and repatriation.  He draws parallels between antiquities restitution cases and the claims involving Nazi looted artworks. 

Since the late 1990s there has been a strong push towards provenance research of collections and museums, and restitution of items that were looted or taken by the Nazis during their period of power in Europe from 1933 to 1945. This process has been ongoing for ten years, and the items in question have often been claimed by people distanced by two or more generations from their original owners.
I have, perhaps, an idiosyncratic, non-politically-correct view that many people will disagree with, but I believe history is history and that you can’t turn the clock back, or make things good again through art.

History has always looked after works of art in strange ways. Ever since the beginning of recorded history, because of its value, art has been looted and as a result arbitrarily distributed and disseminated throughout the world. Of course, what happened in the Nazi period was unspeakable in its awfulness. I lost many relatives, whom I never knew personally, and who died in concentration camps in the most horrible of circumstances. I believe, however, that grandchildren or distant relations of people who had works of art or property taken away by the Nazis do not now have an inalienable right to ownership, at the beginning of the 21st century. If valuable objects have ended up in the public sphere, even on account of the terrible facts of history, then that is the way it is.

If, because of provenance research, works of art are taken from museums, whether in Russia, Germany, France, the US or the UK, and are then sold on for profit or passed around for political expediency, it is nearly always the rich who are making themselves richer. The vast majority of individuals, who were beaten up or killed during the Nazi period—or indeed by other oppressors in different parts of Europe—did not have art treasures that their children and grandchildren can now claim as compensation. The concept of the “universal museum” is also, in certain circumstances, a politically useful euphemism. Nonetheless, it has to be good that important works of art should be available to all through public ownership. Restitution claims from museums go against this idea and result in the general culture being impoverished.

He makes a good point that much of the restitution litigation has been very profitable for both attornies and auction houses.  But these claims are in response to very clear violations of the law.  Perhaps we need to be more careful about what circumstances an art or antiquity claim should be made, but when laws are broken claimants should have a right to justice.  He concludes by arguing for a statute of limitations on these claims.  However such limitations periods currently exist.  The difficulty is not the amoutn of time we might choose for a period, but rather what circumstances trigger the running of that limitations period. 
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