18 October 2017

Different shades of recovery

by Marc Masurovsky

The process of recovery of looted cultural, artistic and religious objects is daunting for several reasons:

If action is not taken right away to recover a looted object, it becomes exponentially difficult to identify its current location. In the case of losses during the Third Reich, “recovery” was an absurd notion since the perpetrators of the thefts controlled the reins of political, legal, and economic power. Hence, the process of tracing the object could only occur after a regime change and with rules in place that would facilitate such searches. Moreover, if the works confiscated or plundered by the Nazi regime ended up in neighboring countries, what rights did the claimants have to recover such works, since Nazi Germany was a recognized nation in the community of nations, for better or for worse? What rights do they have now? Since most of the domestic losses suffered by Jews living in Germany were State-sponsored, there was no mechanism in place in other nations to deem the actions of the Nazi state illegal and the confiscated property subject to restitution. Therefore, if you lost your property in 1934 and if you survived all of the subsequent events provoked by the Nazis’ fury against the Jews and others, you would have to wait for at least 12 years to assert a claim of restitution.

If your missing object is located in the hands of a new owner, regardless of how that person or institution acquired the victims’ property, the laws governing property rights and title to “legally acquired” property prevent the plundered owner from obtaining restitution of his/her looted property without going through a complex tangle of legal and political maneuvers. In the absence of explicit mechanisms put in place by the national governments of nations where such looted objects have ended up, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to recover them. This state of affairs endures to this day and has been a continual source of frustration for victims of plunder with minimal accommodations made by governments and courts to facilitate the process of recovery.

If the looted object is declared part of the cultural patrimony of the nation from where it ended up, the recovery process involves a direct negotiation with that nation’s government, a very laborious discussion which usually ends in utter failure. What is the word of a dispossessed Jewish owner against that of an official who upholds the notion of cultural patrimony and inalienability of art objects located in State collections, whether those objects were looted during genocidal acts? Culpable countries hiding behind such imperialistic arguments are: France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, to cite the worst, Eastern European nations, all of the nations that once formed the Soviet Union.

When source nations seek the return of their looted patrimony which usually consists of antiquities illegally extracted from archaeological sites or illegally removed from religious and other sacred edifices, the wait can last for an eternity; it can also be circumscribed to anywhere from a year to several decades if the aggrieved nation is willing to compromise, accept trade offs like offer commercial advantages to the withholding nation, or agree to symbolic returns with a promise never to come back and ask for anymore as in the case of South Korea and the shabby treatment it received from France over a set of priceless manuscripts.

Aggrieved source nations include but are not limited to Greece, Turkey, Italy, South Korea, China, Egypt, Nigeria, Mali.

In other words, we have not made much progress in the past several decades. As provenance continues to become optional in art market transactions and most nations do not encourage their cultural institutions to be more forthcoming in publicizing the history of the objects that are part of their “patrimony,” nothing short of a cultural revolution will sway them to change course and become, god forbid, ethical.