Georg Steindorff Initiative on Facebook
Recently I finished two books (The Rape of Europa and The Monuments) which documented the looting which occurred during the Nazi invasion of Europe and the subsequent efforts of Allied forces to document and locate the movement of art across the continent. The fallout of this systematic looting is still reverberating today with heirs demanding restitution of long stolen objects.
In a case which exemplifies the complexity which embodies restitution claims, Leipzig University was ordered by a Berlin Court to hand over its teaching collection of Egyptian antiquities to the Jewish Claims Conference (JCC). The collection was amassed by Georg Steindorff who had held the university’s Egyptology Chair until he fled the country to escape Nazi persecution. The JCC, a coalition of 24 international Jewish organizations that seek compensation for Holocaust victims, claimed that Steindorff sold the collection under value to the university under duress and that the collection must therefore be restored for compensation to Holocaust victims.
The German courts upheld the JCC’s claim to the collection despite the fact that Steindorff’s living relatives wish for the collection to remain intact as a teaching collection at the university. Thomas Hemer, Steindorff’s grandson, has even created a Facebook page, the Georg Steindorff Initiative to express his wish for the collection to remain intact.
The collection, which will presumably be sold off piece by piece, has met further controversy with the ever-present Zahi Hawass demanding in an official letter to the JCC the return of the antiquities to Egypt. The University of Pennsylvania educated Hawass, has assiduously sought the return of all Egyptian antiquities to Egyptian soil over the course of his career.
Antiquities have long pasts and many owners which often complicate determining ownership. Does the country of origin made it own it because it was their ingenuity and skill which produced the object? What if the culture which produced it, as in Egypt, has been extinct for millenia? If the object was bought and exported with permission of a foreign occupying government, is it’s export still legal? Occupation, looting and disputed ownership seem to be recurring issues which plague international diplomacy to this day. I wonder what will happen with the next war.