Who owns looted art?

Arts, entertainment, and more.
July 28 2003 3:25 PM

Trading Places

Cultural property disputes are reshaping the art world—but how?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

It's a sad truth that the depredations of war and imperialism have sometimes had positive side effects for art history. Take the Metropolitan Museum's recent "Manet-Velázquez" show, on the influence of 17th-century Spanish painting on 19th-century French art. For most of the 18th century, Spanish artists like Murillo, Zurbaran, and Velázquez were little known outside their homeland. Then in the early 1800s, hundreds of Spanish paintings arrived in Paris as Napoleonic war loot. Some were briefly shown at the Louvre before Napoleon's defeat, after which they were returned. Later that century, French artists began adopting the Spanish artists' realist aesthetic and loose, sensuous brushwork—a move that laid the foundations of Impressionism and radically changed the course of modern art.

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Unlike many European museums, American museums were built with civic and capitalist muscle, rather than imperial might. Yet well into the 1970s their attitude toward acquisitions—as any expert will admit off the record—was frequently "don't ask, don't tell." But today American courts are dealing with an unprecedented number of Holocaust reparation cases. And last year, the Justice Department successfully prosecuted a well-known New York dealer, Frederick Schultz, for conspiring to receive stolen Egyptian antiquities. As a result, some foreign collectors and museums have become more cautious about loaning work to museum shows—particularly those in America—and everyone has become vastly more diligent about conducting provenance research before buying.

What prompted this shift in global attention, when the world often turned a blind eye in the past?

The laws that allow countries to seek restitution of what's known as "cultural property" are a byproduct of the early 20th century, when art-rich countries like Turkey, Italy, and Greece began to introduce what are known as "patrimony laws." (These essentially deem all newly discovered artifacts found within their borders to be the property of the state.)

The movement to protect world culture dramatically intensified after World War II, during which the Nazis and the Russian army confiscated unprecedented numbers of artworks from individuals and public institutions throughout Europe. 1954 saw the drafting of the Hague Convention—the first major international agreement to establish guidelines for protecting cultural property during wartime. Then, in the 1960s, the international art market heated up so much (resulting in increased trade of stolen goods) that UNESCO, in 1970, drafted another convention that encouraged countries to work together as much as possible to enforce each other's export restrictions. (By 2003, UNESCO's guidelines had been ratified by 96 countries, including the United States.) As Thomas Hoving, a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, famously wrote in his 1993 memoir, Making the Mummies Dance,"I recognized that with the UNESCO hearings, the age of piracy had ended."

Today, trying to make sense of all the different international laws is enough to set anyone but a lawyer wailing like the tortured figure in Edvard Munch's "The Scream." In 1995, UNIDROIT (originally the legal auxiliary of the old League of Nations) drafted a convention that aims to enforce export restrictions and help unify cultural property laws worldwide. Within most countries, illegally gotten cultural property is generally covered by a nation's stolen property laws. But transport that cultural property across a border, and you may have violated civil law, criminal law, an import or an export prohibition, or a combination of the above, depending on which country we're talking about, what the object is, and who owns it—and that's just for starters. Much also depends on the particulars of the bilateral and multilateral agreements, if any, between the countries in question, which stipulate whether and to what degree one will honor another's export restrictions.

Obviously, when the dispute is between nations, national pride, politics, and political grandstanding tend to take precedence over law. That's probably why such disputes have a habit of becoming so emotional, and so unresolvable—as evidenced by the long-running brouhaha over the Elgin Marbles, which escalated about 20 years ago. Britain holds that the sculptures, removed from the Parthenon in the early 19th century, were legally purchased by Lord Elgin from the Ottoman Empire, which then controlled Greece—a move that thereby saved them from destruction during Greece's War of Independence and by modern-day Greek air pollution. Yet Greece counters that the seller was an occupying force, therefore the purchase shouldn't count. Both nations regard the sculptures as their cultural patrimony. But Greece didn't exist as an independent nation until 1832—and in any case, its 20th-century patrimony laws can't be applied retroactively. Perhaps that's why Greece, so far, has attempted to resolve the matter through diplomacy, rather than in court.

Last December, an alliance of about 40 major museums, known as the Bizot Group, issued a statement in support of the so-called "universal museum"—one whose collection brings together work from many periods and cultures. (18 museum directors signed the statement, including those of the Metropolitan, the Louvre, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Hermitage.) The statement argues that with time, objects become "part of the heritage of the nations which house them." Clearly, the signatories were also trying to protect their own backs: If the British Museum were ever to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece, the act would likely unleash a torrent of similar claims that could drain the resources—and the collections—of some of the world's great treasure-house museums.

Nonetheless, the Bizot statement has since been slammed by various museum associations and cultural watchdogs for being "Eurocentric" and for taking "a George Bush approach to international relations."

Yet when it comes to cases that can be fought in court, the United States (New York State   and California   in particular) is actually one of the best jurisdictions in the world in which to recover stolen art. For one thing, our common-law legal system offers theft victims better protection, because it mandates that even a good-faith purchaser cannot acquire stolen property.