WWII Looting and its Repurcussions




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.

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Autry may lose state parks grant over Southwest Museum


Battles over ownership and cultural artifacts are not limited to the international sphere but are rife in local politics.  Recent struggles between the Autry National Center and the community of Mount Washington, the Los Angeles neighborhood home to the troubled Southwest Museum.  The Lummis estate, home to the extensive collection of Native American cultural artifacts, was severely damaged in earthquakes and its iconic tower needs serious renovations to meet California seismic requirements.  In 2002 the Southwest Museum controversially merged with the Autry National Center.  Mount Washington residents quickly formed into coalitions to protect the Southwest and ensure that the collection did not move to the Autry National Center’s site in Griffith Park.

Static collections, created often by whimsical and exacting men and women, struggle to maintain the visions of their creators while staying relevant in a modern environment.  Other examples I can think of are the Barnes Collection, the Norton Simon, and the Isabella Stewart Garner Collection.  Oftentimes these museums are located in over-cramped and impractical spaces designed for the smaller visitorship of yesteryear.

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Turkey Demands Return of Antiquities


Following the successes of Italy and Egypt in demanding the restitution of cultural artifacts from international museums, Turkey is now using similar tactics to demand the return of stolen objects.  Germany reluctantly returned a Hittite statue after Turkey refused to renew licenses for archaeological digs.  Ertugral Gunay, Tourism Minister, responded to the object’s return saying, “This is a revolution, this is a great development for the restitution of all our antique artifacts from abroad.  We will fight in the same way for the restitution of the other artifacts.”  Although the Germans made it clear that this restitution would be a one time agreement, it appears Turkish ministers have been encouraged by their success.

Gunay concluded his comments on Turkey’s new antiquities policy foreseeing a long struggle ahead but hopefully concluded, “in the end Europe will return all of the cultural treasures that it has collected from all over the world.”  Is this really the best outcome however?  Antiquities are powerful pawns in the turbulent struggles of nation states to establish sovereignty but will hording objects in their countries of origins help us better understand the past and humankind’s achievements?

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The Joys of Recreating the Past: Bacchic Style


This fun preview of two talks to be offered at the Getty Villa by Patrick McGovern reveals the fun-loving side of archaeology which I experienced in person on two dig seasons in Sicily.  McGovern, a bioarchaeologist, uses the microscopic trace elements of ancient libations to reconstruct the libations of old.  The talks, titled ‘Uncorking the Past’, which will include a beer tasting of a few reconstructed beers are unsurprisingly sold out.

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Russia: Restitution of Looted Objects Lead to Stop on Art Loans and Dimplotic Standoff, Part Deux




Recently an article ran in the LATimes reporting on LACMA’s entanglement with Russia and the nation’s refusal to send 38 objects previously promised for the upcoming exhibition ‘Gifts of the Sultan: The Arts of Giving at the Islamic Courts’ slated to open on June 5.  This diplomatic snafu has already resulted in the cancellation of one exhibition and the indefinite postponement of another.  Russia’s reticence to share is punishment for an unfavorable decision reached by the US  District Court in Washington on a case regarding texts seized from the Chabad organization during the 1917 Revolution and WWII.

The case, brought six years ago by the Chabad organization against Russia sought the return of a trove of religious texts and manuscripts illegally seized from the Jewish religious group originally founded in Russia in the 1700s.  Russia hired counsel and pursued the case through US courts until. LACMA has unwittingly become mired in this international legal and diplomatic quagmire but is more fortunate than other US museums who have had to cancel or postpone exhibitions.  LACMA has stated the ‘Sultan’ show will go on without the loans.

Despite assurances by the U.S. State department and ‘very high level’ talks between Russia and Moscow, Russia has put a ban on all art loans to US museums. There is in fact a federal law enacted in the 1960s which prohibits leans or legal claims on artworks loaned to non-profits. One US State department official who spoke to the LATimes anonymously said, “we have offered every reassurance we can … that works of art are safe.”  These assurance are not working to placate the Russian government because their ban on loans is a protest against the unfavorable decision.  By holding artworks hostage and inconveniencing US museums, the Russians are hoping to achieve through diplomatic channels what they failed to achieve in the US court system.  They have now created a stalemate, they will not loan artworks as long as the court decision stands.  Unfortunately, the US courts are unlikely to be intimidated into reversing or compromising a decision.

When I read this news about the LACMA show, it reminded me of a similar series of diplomatic disputes over art which occurred while I was studying for my Masters in London in 2007.   The traveling exhibition, ‘From Russia with Love,’ which was scheduled to open in January 2008 was put on hold by Russia’s last minute refusal to send the 1 billion pound collection of paintings.  On the heals of the assassination of Alexander Livinenko, relations between the nations were strained and some speculated that Moscow was using this opportunity to express it’s displeasure with Britain.  After Britain send a personal letter of assurance from culture secretary James Purnell and rushed through an anti-seizure measure which would be enacted three weeks before the exhibition was scheduled to open.

Russian museums hold in their collection innumerable artwork, manuscripts and cultural objects stolen from from private citizens by the Bolsheviks in 1917 and seized by the Nazis during the second world war which they vehemently protect, navigating diplomatic channels to ensure they are not returned to their original owners.  Meanwhile Italy, Egypt and Greece have demanded the return of cultural objects illegally looted from tombs and archaeological sites and bought by museums.  So far, many of their demands have been met and the Met, the Getty and Louvre to name a few have returned objects.  A little ironic?

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The Authentification of a Michelangelo and the Forgery of a Campendonk



It seems fitting that this New York Times article ran only a few days before a piece in the German magazine Der Spiegel reported on Steve Martin formerly owning a forged work in his collection. When Steve Martin originally bought the painting from a Paris art gallery in 2004 it had been authenticated by an art expert.  The forgery was put on the market along with other forgeries by a group who claimed to be the heirs to a private collection which had been hidden during the Nazi era to escape bans on ‘degenerate’ art.  Some forgeries of Max Ernst paintings were so convincing that even Werner Spies, an art historian and Ernst expert, gave them his seal of approval.

The success of these forgeries calls into question the efficacy of the authentication process and the continued reliance on connoisseurship. The NYTimes article delves into this question in an article which explores the provenance of a Pieta’ attributed to Michelangelo.

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Michael Govan: Entrepreneurial Spirit of a 21st CenturyMuseum Director


The LATimes ran an article recently which outlines Michael Govan’s successes as director of LACMA.  His five year contract was recently renewed in the wake of nearly doubled museum attendance and successful projects like Chris Burden’s Urban Light and the construction of the Resnick Pavilion since he started in 2006.

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