24 December 2011

Overview of the first year of activity on the “plundered art” blog

In order to know who you, the readers of “plundered art”, are, Google provides a potent tool—Google Analytics—which provides a glimpse of the readership of a blog or a website. In the case of “plundered art”, the following can be said:

You, the readers of “plundered art”, are mostly women, followed closely by men. More than one third of you are at least 35 years old.

Your favorite posts were, in descending order of popularity:
  1. Van Gogh's 1889 depiction of his mutilated self smoking a pipe—PR 144
  2. The five Schiele drawings of Karl Maylander
  3. Jacopo Zucchi, "The Bath of Bathseba": or how pieces of a story build a new story about the same story ex post facto
  4. Nazi looted art conference at Lafayette College, Easton, PA: a debriefing (II)
  5. Nazi looted art conference at Lafayette College, October 26-28, 2011: a debriefing (I)
  6. In search of a triptych "Purificato Mariae" by Marco d'Oggione
  7. MNR (Musées Nationaux Récupération) Notes—R 6 P « Femme au turban, » by Marie Laurencin
  8. The Hemer case or how a claimant does not want to be a claimant
  9. The Wildenstein reality check
  10. French loot in Poland
You live in more than 1000 cities and towns located in 90 countries across 5 continents.

Many of you speak at least one of the following languages: English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Dutch, Polish, Russian, Hebrew, Czech, Hungarian.

You work in global auction houses, multinational companies, national and supranational government agencies like the European Commission, the “Ministère des Affaires étrangères et européennes” in Paris, the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC, the United Nations, UNESCO, the US Department of Justice and the US Department of State.

On the academic front, you hail from universities, academies, and institutes in the Americas, the West Indies, Europe, and Asia.

You also work for international news agencies, libraries and archives, as well as world-renown art museums and galleries.


First anniversary of "plundered art"

Happy holidays!

The “plundered art” blog just passed its first anniversary.

This might be a good time to revisit its reason for existence.

It’s not that simple to decide one day: “Oh! Let’s write about the restitution of art objects looted by those Nazis and Fascists during the 1930s and 1940s and how so much of it was never returned to the rightful owners and why the current owners of those objects look for every way under the sun not to return those objects and why governments pretend that there is no problem.”

This blog is certainly not about settling scores, old and new.

It’s actually a complicated beast.

At first, I was very shy about putting anything in writing about an issue that has already absorbed several decades of my life. Truth be told, the initial motivation for this blog was to share the story of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP), how it came into existence and what it was able to accomplish.

The telling of HARP’s story has not been a simple affair and is still incomplete.

It runs afoul of important and enduring taboos:
  • the unwillingness of postwar Jewish organizations in the Americas, Europe, and the Middle East, to press for a complete accounting of the cultural losses suffered by Jewish owners during the 1930s and 1940s;
  • the unwillingness of State-controlled cultural institutions across the globe to produce a complete inventory of cultural assets that entered their collections since the 1930s which might have been acquired illegally;
  • the unwillingness of governments to come clean about the extent, scope, and breadth of cultural plunder in their respective nations and their efforts to produce complete inventories of those looted cultural assets in State-owned collections;
  • the unwillingness of governments to come clean about the total number of looted cultural assets present in State-owned collections;
  • the unwillingness of national and international groups to address the question of cultural rights, the sovereign right of individuals to culture and to the ownership of cultural assets over those of States, the question of cultural patrimony, cultural property, and cultural heritage, and how those abstract notions interfere with and are used against the right of individuals to recover and own looted cultural assets which are rightfully theirs. Those non-governmental organizations include but are not limited to: the United Nations, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the International Council of Museums (ICOM) and many other organizations and agencies, supranational and national which are specifically concerned with cultural rights, and the protection of cultural assets;
  • the unwillingness of law enforcement, police and security agencies—civilian and military—to repress and suppress the illicit international trade in looted cultural assets, including and especially the millions of objects that changed hands illegally against the backdrop of genocide, mass conflict and slaughter in the 1930s and 1940s and beyond;
  • the unwillingness of cultural institutions, universities, colleges, institutes, foundations, and other cultural establishments to teach and educate young and old about the phenomenon of cultural plunder, the cultural rights of individuals, and ask the fundamental question as to who owns culture when discussing the illicit removal of art objects from the hands of their rightful owners and the attempts of the latter—mostly vain—to recover them as their own.
As of now, the following items remain unanswered, more than sixty-five years after plunder was denounced at the International Military Tribunal at Nurnberg as a crime against humanity and a war crime:
  • the true extent, scope, and breadth of thefts of cultural assets during the 1930s and 1940s for racial, political, and other reasons;
  • the actual number of lost cultural assets, by type, by owner, by country;
  • the actual number of cultural assets recovered;
  • the actual number of cultural assets restituted to their rightful owners;
  • the actual number of cultural assets that were recovered but never restituted;
  • the actual number of cultural assets that were looted and never restituted—by type, by owner, by country.
  • the identity of the thieves;
  • the identity of those who agreed to trade in these looted cultural assets;
  • the identity of those who currently own these looted cultural assets.
To make a long story short, for now, the telling of HARP’s story ran afoul of these unanswered questions and the overwhelming taboo that endures today as strongly as it did two decades ago of venerable institutions that seek to educate the world about the Holocaust and genocide and yet refuse out of principle—yes, OUT OF PRINCIPLE!—to avoid at all costs any discussion, any debate, any addressing in any way, shape or form, of the question of cultural plunder, despite the fact that millions of members of the Jewish community suffered unspeakable losses, physical, material, and spiritual—among them, the loss of objects that tied them to culture—their own and that of others.

Let’s be clear about one thing: it is far easier to ignore the problem than to address it. And for those who seek to address it absent any filters, any caveats, any disclaimers, any compromises, the road is long, steep, and lonely. But every time progress is made, however small, even the mere existence of this blog, justifies the desire to induce even the slightest change in society’s approach to the question of cultural rights, cultural ownership, and cultural restitution.

The second year of the “plundered art” blog opens on a renewed commitment to speak, document, critique, applaud, proclaim, advocate and document, document, and document more. Because transparency is the only way by which we can grasp the full breadth and scope of the problem, a problem made so complicated by those who oppose restitution. Those who refuse to address it are simply acting as accomplices, aiding and abetting in the crime of rewriting history by denying its existence.

I wish to thank you, our readers, listeners, observers, and critics alike, for checking into “plundered art.” I invite you to continue.

Year two promises to explore cultural plunder in other realms, like the Far East, the universality of cultural rights and its nemesis, cultural plunder; and the search for enduring, long-term solutions to remedy the ills of cultural thefts anchored in mass conflict, genocide, ethnocide, and other forms of wholesale persecutions perpetrated by a State or a group against individuals because of who they are and what they are.

Works and objects will be discussed with dubious ownership histories which are displayed, bought, and sold, across the globe.

And, of course, there is no shortage of historical information on plundered objects that have either been restituted or remain out of reach of their rightful owners.

Until next time…