Returning Stolen Art: A Reparation for Genocide?

 /  Oct. 18, 2016, 4:11 p.m.


Over the summer, I visited the British Museum. I walked across hallways and through exhibits from all over the world, in front of statues from the Parthenon and sarcophagi from ancient Egypt and the doors of Assyrian temples and ceramics from imperial China. And as I walked, I wondered, “How is it that the British Museum has ownership of all of these cornerstones of foreign cultures?”

This was different from my experience walking into the Amber Room of Catherine the Great’s Palace in St. Petersburg. There, the tour guide was not shy in showing her rage over the fact that the exhibit is a recreation: Nazis, she told us, had looted the original panels of the room during World War II. In our tour in the British Museum, there was little mention of where pieces came from, just a couple of pictures from archaeologists at digging sites. In St. Petersburg, the guide was explicit in accusing the Nazis of stealing art. Why did it seem natural to enjoy foreign art in London but outrageous to be in the room that was sacked by Nazis? Why did the presence of a foreign artwork make me forget that another community could be missing that artifact?

Determining the value of a piece of art is a complex task: value is defined not only by the worth of the object in itself, but also by its cultural and political significance. For instance, the price of the Koh-i-Noor diamond is not solely the price of its 106 carats. Conflicts over ownership, looting, and confiscation of art and artifacts are not infrequent, but stolen art treasures are seldom restored to their rightful owners. The appeal of art as an economic and cultural asset makes defining who is entitled to it a complex issue of justice. Entitlement has to do with who art belongs to, who it should belong to, and who should access it. These questions are the foundation of a just approach to allocating rights over cultural heritage.

The Holocaust was a humanitarian crisis unlike any other. Systematic discrimination against minorities, especially Jews, the murder of three-quarters of the European Jewish population, and state-led efforts to abolish Jewish culture made it imperative to promote measures of restitution for victims of heinous crimes. The Nazi attack on Jews was in part cultural, and some scholars have argued that the Nazis stole or destroyed Jewish art as a means of annihilating their culture. In this struggle, the private art collections and works of many families of Jewish descent were confiscated, forcefully taken, or destroyed by Nazis. There are said to be more than a thousand repositories of confiscated art with more than one hundred thousand stolen artworks.

At the end of the war, the United States created the Roberts Commission and the United Kingdom created the Macmillan Committee. These organizations were responsible for identifying art stolen by the Nazis and aiding in efforts to return it to its owners. The results of their work were quite limited, and even finding many of the works was difficult, as any repositories are hidden in obscure places in Austria and Germany. For example, Michelangelo's “Madonna and Child,” stolen from the Notre Dame Church in Bruges in 1944, was found in an underground salt mine.

Rigorous and extensive international agreements have been signed in an effort to return stolen artworks to their rightful owners. European countries began to publish inventories of looted art in 1985, hoping that owners and their heirs would claim their property. In 1998, the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets embraced Austrian legislation that required museums to make their archives open and to collaborate with the government in identifying and returning stolen artwork. In 1999, Resolution 1205 of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe expanded the demands placed on private collectors and museums to return works; it also promoted changes in legislation to favor restitution. These initiatives were echoed by the 2000 Vilnius Conference on Holocaust Era Looted Cultural Assets and the 2009 Terezin Declarations, which were agreed upon in the Prague Holocaust Era Assets Conference. These international agreements have contributed to the restitution of art to Holocaust victims and their heirs. The problem is that they are non-binding, meaning that there are no legal or criminal consequences for not following them.

Conflicts of entitlement over antiques are also a problem in the Middle East. In this region, which is home to thousands of archaeological sites, several countries are undergoing political conflicts, social unrest, and wars. Similar to the Holocaust-era behavior of the Nazis, ISIS is using state-sponsored destruction of cultural assets to eliminate cultures and traditions that conflict with their policy. Ironically, the group engages in illegal trade of antiquities to finance its operation. In Iraq and Syria, there is ambiguous information about the concrete role that artifact smuggling plays in the financing of ISIS.

Although archeological sites have always been subject to looting, there has been an intensification of looting in Syria since the war began, according to Jesse Casana, an associate professor at Dartmouth and specialist in Middle Eastern Archaeology. In September 2015, Casana published a study in which he analyzed the conditions of historical sites in Syria using satellite imagery to assess the damage caused by war. Comparing satellite images since the war began to satellite images from 2007 to 2012, he determined that approximately 22 percent of sites have been looted. Casana reached a startling conclusion: the data suggest the amount of damage that has amounted in only the past three years is equal to that which accumulated over several decades before the war. And unfortunately, looting is increasing yearly.

Casana blames the increased looting on the breakdown of the central government. This is corroborated by the fact that 16.5 percent and 21 percent of lootings occur in Syrian regime-held areas and ISIS-controlled areas, respectively, while 27 percent occur in opposition-held areas and 28 percent occur in Kurdish-held areas. Furthermore, Casana is skeptical of reports about ISIS issuing looting “permits,” allowing farmers to search for valuables for a taxation fee. Casana argues that there is little evidence supporting the theory that ISIS has a system in place to actively promote looting—and thus questions the importance the antiquities trade plays in the regime’s financing. Nonetheless, the looting that takes place in ISIS-held areas is more severe, with 42 percent of looted sites having been looted at more than a minor level. Casana’s study concludes that ISIS-controlled areas suffer a lower rate of looting than areas of Syria, but that the looting in these regions is more severe. Nonetheless, his data do not point to a systematic approach to looting by ISIS.

This contradicts the claim, repeated by US officials, that the antiquities trade is one of the most important sources of income for ISIS. The US state department offers $5 million rewards to those who contribute information about the organization’s antiquities black market. Experts in archaeology think the estimates of how important the antiques black market is for ISIS are overrated. The US government insists on attacking every source of income, even if it requires taking extreme measures against buyers.  

In May 2015, a raid by US special forces resulted in the death of Abu Sayyaf, who had reportedly directed ISIS’s antiquities trafficking since late 2014. In his home they found several hundred artifacts, receipts for selling hundreds more, and registers of having made millions in the black market in previous years. These artifacts were sold via everything from black market websites to Snapchat. Yet, ISIS also propagandizes its destruction of sites it regards as heretical. In February 2015, ISIS fighters in Iraq published a video that depicted them smashing and destroying antiquities from the Assyrian and Akkadian empires. In their effort to establish the Islamic State, they are fighting a war to destroy artifacts of heretical origin. As in the Second World War, what we are seeing is the theft of artifacts for economic gain and the destruction of other artifacts in an effort to destroy cultures.

The unifying links in the chain of art theft from the Holocaust-era violations to modern-day looting are museums and private collections. Official appropriation of illegally-held artworks is not uncommon. Reparation lawsuits of Holocaust victims have been aimed at museums, as have measures to promote the identification of provenance of works. Private collections have also played their part in feeding the black market. In both cases, claims of illegal art acquisitions have been made by families of Holocaust victims and by countries claiming that their cultural assets are in the wrong hands. Famously, in a 2006 case, the heirs of Gustav Klimt reclaimed several of the artist’s paintings that had been exhibited in Austria’s Belvedere Gallery for decades. Despite the fact that the the pieces had been confiscated by Nazis during the Holocaust, the heirs had to undergo extensive court processes to have their property returned to them.

There is no evidence to suggest that museums are buying artifacts from ISIS. However, they do buy from private collectors, who may have acquired their artifacts illegally. This makes determining legal responsibility even more complicated. For example, in 2012, eight hundred Afghan artifacts looted in 1990 were returned to the National Museum of Afghanistan with the help of the British Museum and Britain’s ministry of defense. The pieces, which had been sold on the black market, had to be bought back with donations from private collections before they could be returned to their country of origin.

The illegal possession of works of art is part of the problem. Many collectors and museums have held—and continue to hold—lax policies in buying and keeping works that have been unrightfully acquired. At the same time, they hold strict policies of protecting their assets when they are summoned to return them. This is true in the case of the so-called Elgin Marbles, statues from the Parthenon acquired by the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. The ambassador acquired permission to bring the statues to London, and the British Museum formally bought them from the sultan a couple of years later. Today, the Hellenic Ministry of Culture claims the agreement is illegitimate and asks for the return of the statues. The British Museum holds that the Parthenon Sculptures “are a part of the world’s shared heritage and transcend political boundaries.”

The museum’s claim that it protects “cultural assets of humanity” is controversial because the same rationale has been used to political ends. In 2011, Iran cut ties with the Louvre because the museum delayed the loan of Persian artifacts that originated in Iran. This resembled a similar case in 2009, when the British Museum justified its delay by citing political instability after the 2009 Iranian elections. Hamid Baghai, the head of Tehran’s Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization, stated that "in the cultural field, we do not accept that European countries look down on us."

The debates surrounding the right to artwork and ancient artifacts make us question the validity of claims like this. On the one hand, there is the legal precedent of providing retribution to families of Holocaust survivors; on the other, there are claims from museums that advocate for the protection and global access to art, seeing it as a cultural product for mankind. In the middle, there is the state-sponsored destruction of artifacts led by ISIS as political statements and as efforts to destroy cultures, and their practice of smuggling antiques to receive financiation.

Part of the problem of the restitution of art to Holocaust victims and their heirs is the museums’ unwillingness to cooperate with information about the origin of their artwork. Museums do not want to lose precious items or face accusations of holding illegally acquired assets. They also have, at least on paper, a desire to make art accessible. Like the Elgin Marbles, many antiques and artworks are “a part of the world’s shared heritage and transcend political boundaries.”

Does allegedly protecting valuable objects from war-torn zones or from places of political instability as a way to preserve the cultural legacy of many peoples as a “resource to the world” justify keeping objects that were acquired through unreliable agreements and outright illegal actions? I think not. It is unjust that there is a vast international effort to return artworks to victims of the Holocaust and little effort being made to return works of art and antiques to countries that lost them due to colonization and unfair agreements. Worse yet is the fact that said countries are restricted from exhibiting objects of their own cultural heritage because of political arguments. Making art public should be a priority, but it should be even a greater priority to display these artifacts and artworks in their country of origin. If the concern for preserving culture is real, there is an enormous inconsistency in fighting to return Holocaust-era stolen items to private individuals, but fighting to keep artifacts of anthropological importance because they are elements of “humanity’s cultural heritage.”

If returning artworks is a way to provide reparations to victims of genocide not only as a commodity but as a cultural asset to the victimized people, is it worth it not being accessible to more people by being exhibited in a museum? If the art is part of a community's or humanity´s cultural heritage, it is fair to claim that art should be public. Who benefits from making it public is a different story: it is only natural that restitution should favor those who have lost art, but only in a way that still maintains public access to the works, as they are part of a culture shared by many.

There is so much more that goes on behind the scenes in creating exhibits than meets the eye. The immense value of art and antiquities makes it essential for us to be aware of what we see, where we see it, why it is there, and if it should be there. I propose that art should be consumed responsibly, especially with the importance that antique smuggling has for ISIS and in war-torn regions of the Middle East. By this I mean that if there are trends of following the chain of production in the consumption of technology, clothes, and food to assure that the impact of consumption is positive, the same should apply to cultural products. The fundamental point is first defining what are the standards for just and unjust possession of art, and then applying them universally.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

Patricia Van Hissenhoven Florez


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