18 December 2016

Russian activity on the plundered art blog

by Marc Masurovsky

What could be so interesting about the “plundered art” blog that it has attracted a blizzard of pageviews unlike anything seen since the blog first started in 2010? The mission of this cultural blog has always been and will always be: to document and discuss acts of cultural plunder, the restitution of looted art, and the ethics of museum administrators worldwide.

This digital onslaught of “visits” to the plundered art blog has come from Russia. It coincides with the December 5, 2016,  publication of HARP’s study detailing the inability and/or unwillingness of the US Department of State to conduct provenance research when considering requests by foreign lenders for certificates of immunity from judicial seizure that provoked the Russian onslaught. Since then, the story has received more than 4000 pageviews. In our world, that number falls outside the range of “normal” readership on the plundered art blog. We’re happy if we get 2-300 pageviews in a month for a single article.

At the time of publication of the aforementioned article, the US Senate was considering a bill called S. 3155. This bill makes it possible for foreign lenders to obtain immunity from seizure for the objects that they consider lending to US museums. The American museum directors’ lobby, enshrined in the Association of American Museum Directors (AAMD) has been struggling for four years to pass such a law through the Senate. Twice defeated, the AAMD chose the “submarine” strategy. No publicity, no public discussion, just silent lobbying. It also obtained the good services of Mr. Sneak Attack himself, Senator Chuck Schumer, a “Democrat” from New York State, to shepherd the bill through the Senate.

Why would the Russian government be so concerned with an American administrative rule that ensures that works of art from abroad are not seized while on display in an American museum? The procedure in and of itself should be a sufficient guarantee that art works from Russian institutions will be adequately protected while on display in the United States. Apparently, that does not suffice. In a nation like Russia and perhaps other countries where the State oversees, to a lesser or greater extent, the cultural arena, explicit statements by national legislatures count more than an administrative rule. This might explain the motivation of the AAMD to go for the jugular and ask the US Senate to pass a law that enshrines the principle of immunity from judicial seizure as a clear expression of an American cultural policy that officially does not exist. The immunity from seizure procedure has been in place for decades, overseen and enforced by the US Department of State. So why pursue legislation that repeats pretty much what the State Department already does on a weekly basis?

There is no need to show up with reams of documents and thousands of emails to prove Russia’s interest in S. 3155. It is basic common sense to argue that it is in the interest of the Russian government that the AAMD should succeed in pushing S. 3155 through the US Senate.

And it did succeed, before the sun rose on December 10, 2016.

The AAMD’s success in the Senate should beam a strong enough signal to Vladimir Putin that American museum directors are doing their all to assuage him and to convince him to reverse his decision on the cultural loan freeze imposed by Russia since 2011.

S. 3155 will sterilize the American cultural environment at the exhibit level whereby all objects on display loaned by foreign institutions will not be subject to a claim for restitution by any aggrieved party. A perfect rendition of the absolutist idea that “Culture transcends History” as Dr. Mikhail Piotrovsky, head of the Hermitage Museum, would have you note, an idea in line with the philosophy of “globalism” touted by the world’s leading museum directors and their governments according to which the museums they lead are the sepulchers of culture and art. We should worship them and thank them for “safeguarding” samples of the world’s best art and most significant cultural artifacts. The globalist museum world believes in the free exchange of artistic and cultural objects without any impediments or restrictions placed by governments and their institutions. Globalists refuse to allow history and all of its abject manifestations--civil wars, military and political upheavals, economic dislocation, ethnocide, genocide, and other mass expressions of human cruelty—to interfere with their ability to acquire and display objects, irrespective of their origin, which means, irrespective of their provenance, of their history. Provenance research, for these institutions, is an option to be exercised when needed.

Governments, including the American government, have been complicit in allowing their museums to acquire and exhibit willy-nilly. Their ethically lax behavior emboldens theft and plunder. Once illicitly-obtained objects enter a museum’s collection, they are only rarely removed as restitutable items to their rightful owners. The United States government, by its very inactions, refuses to compel American cultural institutions which harbor looted cultural objects to restitute them to their rightful owners. Although looting is publicly condemned as a reprehensible criminal activity, its fruits are protected once they enter cultural institutions. This paradox is alive and well and has been so for decades. S. 3155 is but a mere expression thereof.

Public outrage against looting may be universal but when a museum accepts the fruits of such criminal acts, there is generally no effort to force it to disgorge those looted objects and return them to their rightful owners. S. 3155 confirms that absolutist, Statist approach to culture.

Now that the US Senate has passed S. 3155 and President Barack Obama has signed it into law, the American museum community has proven that the US does not really need a ministry of culture, because the AAMD, with the blessings of the US Congress, acts as the de jure cultural arbiter of the nation’s cultural institutions in line with the Federally-controlled Smithsonian Institutions; the US Senate and the US government are there to do its bidding. Put another way, the museum directors’ lobby usually gets what it wants, much like the National Rifle Association.