Monday, June 12, 2006
Rooting Out Loot
In both cases, American museums assert they want to do the right thing, by returning improperly expropriated objects to their rightful owners. And in both cases, the museums rightly insist upon documentation or other compelling evidence before turning over the American public's patrimony to private owners (in the case of Nazi loot), or foreign governments (in the case of antiquities).
But there's one big difference: When it comes to Nazi loot, many major museums have undertaken extensive reviews of their own holdings, to identify and publish lists of works with murky provenance during the years around World War II. I have always had mixed feelings about this, because it's arguable whether the time, effort and expense involved in this effort are commensurate with the few cases of restitution that have ensued.
Still, museums have deemed this an appropriate means of helping to right past wrongs, even though (and I believe the museums on this) American institutions were, in most cases, good-faith, innocent purchasers of what later was discovered to be Nazi loot.
Should they do less for unprovenanced antiquities, where purchases, in many cases, were not so innocent? If museums didn't know that something illicit had occurred in unearthing and transporting many of those objects, it wasn't that they were naïve; it was that they didn't want to know.
I must now interrupt this message with a disclaimer: I am raising this question as devil's advocate. If compiling lists of possible Nazi loot was onerous, the task of sifting through hundreds, if not thousands, of ambiguous antiquities is close to impossible. One could limit this to works of a certain level of importance (which are, of course, precisely the works that museums least want to give away). And, for practical reasons, if nothing else, there should probably be a cutoff date: i.e., only works acquired after the effective date of the U.S. Cultural Property Implementation Act, Apr. 12, 1983, could be eligible for inclusion on the list.
This is a very tentative, if provocative, "for-what-it's-worth" proposal. Reasonable people will undoubtedly disagree---including, perhaps, even me!
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