Museums in the USA were founded on very different principles to many of those in Europe. Nowadays, this difference is starting to manifest itself in their more pragmatic approach to the restitution of disputed artefacts in their collections.
Cultural property disputes are reshaping the art world—but how?
By Carol Kino
Posted Monday, July 28, 2003, at 12:25 PM PT
It’s a sad truth that the depredations of war and imperialism have sometimes had positive side effects for art history. Take the Metropolitan Museum’s recent “Manet-Velázquez” show, on the influence of 17th-century Spanish painting on 19th-century French art. For most of the 18th century, Spanish artists like Murillo, Zurbaran, and Velázquez were little known outside their homeland. Then in the early 1800s, hundreds of Spanish paintings arrived in Paris as Napoleonic war loot. Some were briefly shown at the Louvre before Napoleon’s defeat, after which they were returned. Later that century, French artists began adopting the Spanish artists’ realist aesthetic and loose, sensuous brushwork—a move that laid the foundations of Impressionism and radically changed the course of modern art.
Unlike many European museums, American museums were built with civic and capitalist muscle, rather than imperial might. Yet well into the 1970s their attitude toward acquisitions—as any expert will admit off the record—was frequently “don’t ask, don’t tell.” But today American courts are dealing with an unprecedented number of Holocaust reparation cases. And last year, the Justice Department successfully prosecuted a well-known New York dealer, Frederick Schultz, for conspiring to receive stolen Egyptian antiquities. As a result, some foreign collectors and museums have become more cautious about loaning work to museum shows—particularly those in America—and everyone has become vastly more diligent about conducting provenance research before buying.
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