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Disputed artefacts – famous for being famous…

A recurrent theme with disputed artefacts is that they end up becoming popularly known for the dispute that surrounds them rather than for what they are in their own right – that is to say that they are famous for being famous. Few would dispute that the Parthenon Marbles are far more widely discussed now than if they had remained on the Parthenon – however, this should not be confused with the claims of the British Museum & others that their acquisition popularised them. They are not well know because they are in a well known museum (the British Museum has vast amounts of artefacts that few people have heard of) but are well known because of the controversy surrounding their ownership, or other similar issues that raise them to prominence. This can manifest itself in many other ways – the Mona Lisa for instance became more famous after it was stolen, as did Evard Munch’s The Scream.

Cases such as this often make it hard to stand back & see the works for their own intrinsic artistic value, as this is overshadowed by the controversy around them – they are however two largely separate strands that combine (with others) to form the sculptures as we perceive them today. Either of these strands could be removed, but would not stand alone in the same way if it was. Far from being an excuse for the actions of people such as the Seventh Earl of Elgin however, this should be seen perhaps more as an incitement to appreciate art for what it is, rather than merely noticing it because of its fame.

Wall Street Journal [1]

JULY 27, 2010
What Is Lost When Works are Trophies

It’s interesting to contemplate how works of art, which museums generally want us to appreciate for their aesthetic values, can turn into trophies: emblems of issues or events that have nothing to do with their status as art.

Take Egon Schiele’s “Portrait of Wally” (1912), which goes on view at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan for three weeks starting Thursday, following an out-of-court settlement of the dispute over its ownership. In 1998 it had been seized by then-Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau from a Schiele exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, to which it had been lent by Vienna’s Leopold Museum. Mr. Morgenthau was acting on behalf of the estate of Lea Bondi Jaray. The heirs of the original owner held that the painting had been stolen from her by the Nazis and therefore did not belong to the Leopold Museum. “Portrait of Wally” may not be Schiele’s most important painting, but the legal case has certainly turned it into his most famous one.

The distortion of artworks through their use as icons of money, power and politics has a long and notorious history. In the course of his conquests, Napoleon removed the fourth century B.C. classical Greek horses that had graced the upper façade of St. Mark’s in Venice since 1254, along with many other artworks, some of which, like those horses, were eventually repatriated. The systematic Nazi looting of art, including works belonging to victims of the Holocaust, was done, in part, with an eye to creating Hitler’s “Führermuseum”—the ultimately unrealized monument to his art plundering, which was planned for Linz, Austria. There’s even a work of art that illustrates this phenomenon. A prominent relief atop the Arch of Titus (c. A.D. 82) depicts the proud Roman victors carting away the great ceremonial menorah after their A.D. 70 destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, no doubt to be displayed in some suitably prominent locale. Thaws in the Soviet-American Cold War were accompanied by major loan exhibitions from Soviet museums, and changes in political climates have often generated other such projects.

However much we may love the fifth century B.C. Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum as masterpieces of ancient Greek sculpture that were fundamental to the formation of Western art—think Michelangelo’s majestic “David,” the works of Antonio Canova (1757-1822), and even Horatio Greenough’s monumental Zeus-like marble carving of George Washington (1832) that once graced the U.S. Capitol Rotunda—they long ago took on another kind of life. As “the Elgin Marbles” they have figured in a cultural tug-of-war between Greece and Britain. For decades the Greek government has been aggressively attempting to have them returned, most recently for display in the new museum built for them at the foot of Athens’ Acropolis. The British make their ownership case in a new leaflet available in the galleries where they are displayed. This may be highly informative and, depending on your point of view, even persuasive, but it also creates a distraction that makes it increasingly difficult to zoom in on the works as art.

In 1961 the Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased Rembrandt’s “Aristotle With a Bust of Homer” (1653) at auction for $2.3 million, an unheard-of sum at the time. The cartoons and quips about whether anything was worth that kind of money, as well as the people queuing up to see the painting because of the media-generated interest in its record price, obscured the painting’s value as a work of art. Decades later, we see how meaningfully the painting expands the Met’s rich Rembrandt holdings. Sometimes it takes a while for the ancillary aspects of celebrated artworks to fade from view.

“Portrait of Wally,” by contrast, seems destined to retain its special status in perpetuity. At the request of the heirs, the terms of settlement with the estate of Lea Bondi Jaray include this brief display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, which serves to reinforce its narrower identity in the public mind as a Nazi-era artifact. Showing it in an art museum might have helped return the painting to where it belongs conceptually in relation to the context of 20th-century modernism.

But what permanently locks Schiele’s painting into this alternate, extra-artistic perceptual universe is the clause in the legal settlement stipulating that “Portrait of Wally” will be shown with “signage next to the Painting at the Leopold Museum, and at all future displays of the Painting of any kind that the Leopold Museum authorizes or allows anywhere in the world, that sets forth the true provenance of the Painting, including Lea Bondi Jaray’s prior ownership of the Painting and its theft from her by a Nazi agent before she fled to London in 1939.”

Compare this with the fate of another painting with a similar contested history. In 2006, Gustav Klimt’s iconic 1907 “Portrait of Adele Block-Bauer I”— which had also been stolen by the Nazis—was returned to its rightful owners after years of litigation against the Austrian government by Maria Altmann, the sitter’s niece. Calling it “our Mona Lisa,” New York collector-philanthropist Ronald Lauder then purchased the painting from Mrs. Altmann for a reported $135 million, installing it with commanding splendor in his Neue Galerie, a museum of German and Austrian modernist art on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, yet without a label describing its amazing legal history.

All of which raises interesting questions about the role of art museums in satisfying both our own natural curiosity about what’s newsworthy and our ability to focus on what is above all meant to be understood visually. There’s no consensus as to how this might be done, but a persuasive model can be seen at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, where occasional, judiciously placed supplementary labels describe the results of provenance research, and may include, but aren’t limited to, information about ownership disputes.

Serious curiosity can increasingly be satisfied on museum websites, which have greatly increased our access to ancillary information. This makes it possible for the museum visit to encourage its one unique experience: the art experience.

Mr. Freudenheim, a former art museum director, served as the assistant secretary for museums at the Smithsonian Institution.