This morning the New York Times had an article about two parallel art exhibits displaying art looted during WWII. The exhibit is a collaboration between France and Israel in aims at reconnecting these pieces with their original owners. Most of the art on display was either outright looted or forcefully “bought” by the Nazi, and so far has gone unclaimed, presumably because the original owners were likely killed in the Holocaust. The collections contain a number of “common” pieces, but also works from renown artist such as Cézanne, Manet, Degas, Chagall, Delacroix, and Monet among others.
Art and other cultural pieces are often looted during times of war and much has been written and discussed on the subject. Actually a couple semesters ago I attended a lecture by Patricia Kennedy Grimsted, a Harvard professor who has written extensively on collections held in Russian archives which previously belong to other nations. Her book, “Trophies of War and Empire: The Archival Heritage of Ukraine, World War II and the International Politics of Restitution” discusses the complexities of restitution and why countries loot other nations’ cultural treasures.
Fortunately there are efforts around the globe to stop this practice. The Lost Art Internet Database is a project from the Koordinierungsstelle für Kulturgutverluste which is working to reconnect lost cultural property to its original owners. Looted Art is another such initiative, and while many of these efforts circle the Holocaust this is not a phenomenon seen exclusively around WWII, Chile recently returned a number of book taken from the Peruvian National Library about 100 years ago. And it’s not just armies who walk away with cultural property that belongs to others. Some of the largest and best endowed universities and museums around the world have gotten some of their material in such a matter. Egypt has been demanding the return of the Rosetta Stone for years, to name just one example (You can read about this from an article in the BBC). Unfortunately we are still seeing this practice in current times; the National Museum of Iraq was gravely looted during the USA invasion. (You can read about the Iraqi National Museum from an article in the Guardian.)