Feb 23, 2009

Student Comment on Repatriation of Flemish art in French Museums

Paige Goodwin has a Student Comment in the recent Pennsylvania Law Review, Mapping The Limits Of Repatriable Cultural Heritage: A Case Study Of Stolen Flemish Art In French Museums, 157 Penn. L. Rev. 157 673 (2008). 

On June 20, 1939, Adolf Hitler called upon Hans Posse, one of his chief advisors, to establish the Sonderauftrag Linz (“Special Project Linz”)—a cultural complex in the Führer’s hometown. The showpiece of the propagandistic cultural center would be the Führermuseum, a grand museum housing the most revered European artwork from every century. By the end of the war, the Nazis had stolen more than 21,000 paintings, sculptures, and other art pieces for Hitler’s museum. Upon discovering the large-scale pillaging when the war ended, the Allies mounted a well-publicized campaign to return the stolen art to its rightful owners. For essentially the first time in history, the international art community launched a coordinated campaign to repatriate stolen art and revise museum acquisition policies. Beyond returning many of the stolen works, the postwar movement resulted in the 1954 Hague Convention, which conceived the art world’s newest buzzword: “cultural property.”


Nearly two centuries before Hitler’s art campaign, revolutionary and postrevolutionary French governments, particularly under Napoleon Bonaparte, oversaw many national political changes that implicated concepts of cultural property. Chief among these was the nationalization of the royal art collection at the Luxembourg Palace, later renamed the Musée Napoléon (and now known as the Louvre). Like Hitler, Napoleon envisioned a spectacular art museum bearing his name and charged French troops with confiscating art at home and in foreign conquests. Between 1794 and 1813, art shipments arrived in France nearly every year from Italy, Belgium, Austria, the Netherlands, and Spain. When the Musée Napoléon became too cramped with the spoils of war, Napoleon transferred art to regional museums throughout the country. Although the 1815 Treaty of Paris ended the war in Europe, most works stolen by the Napoleonic armies remain in the Louvre or in French regional museums today.
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