March 15, 2008

When do looted artefacts become legitimate cultural property?

Posted at 11:23 pm in Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

There is a dividing line between what counts as looted artefacts & what counts as legitimate cultural property, assimilated deeply into the cultural fabric of its new homeland. Unfortunately, nobody can agree at what point this dividing line occurs.

In other news, this is the one thousandth post on this site – I’m not sure that this proves anything particularly, except that there continues to be a high level of media interest in the controversy surrounding the Elgin Marbles, & restitution claims generally.

Taipei Times

When does ill-gotten booty become legitimate cultural property?
European spoils of war have often included cultural relics and art pieces, but it remains unclear when they should be returned to their countries of origin
By Michael Kimmelman
Thursday, Mar 13, 2008, Page 9

It is hard to find anyplace in Europe today, even in peaceable Sweden, where people are not squabbling over cultural property and the spoils of war.

For some time, it turns out, a handful of nationalist Danes have been loudly barking about booty that the Swedes nabbed 350 years ago in a war with Denmark. The cache includes an ornate canopy from Kronborg Castle, of Hamlet lore, and recently people in Skane, a region in the south of Sweden that was ceded by Denmark in 1658 after losing the war, said they wanted the canopy handed over.

In other words, one part of Sweden claimed restitution from, well, the rest of Sweden. An Internet poll by a Swedish newspaper revealed that a majority of residents there apparently still harbor dreams of Danish citizenship and resent their calm, polite, democracy-loving Swedish masters.

On Valentine’s Day, a Danish newspaper went so far as to run a front-page headline accusing Ikea — the furniture giant founded by a Swede, which Danes have long loved to hate — of “bullying Denmark” by giving comfy sofas and shiny tables Swedish and Norwegian place names while assigning Danish names to doormats and rugs.

“I don’t think this can be a coincidence,” a Danish professor is quoted as saying on The Local, an English-language Swedish Web site.

He called the practice “cultural imperialism.”

Feeling guilty about my living room carpet, I decided to stop the other day into the Royal Armory here for a show called “War Booty” to see if the Swedes had anything to say for themselves. The exhibition ends up being a refresher course in history for a nation that, having not fought a battle since losing Finland to the Russians 200 years ago, clearly prefers to think of itself as the home of Dag Hammarskjold — the second secretary-general of the UN — rather than as a bygone empire.

But into the 18th century, as the show recounts, Sweden stocked its libraries and museums and churches with stolen arms, books, altarpieces, textiles and art by painters like Titian and Tintoretto, Durer and Archimboldo. Much of this loot was pinched from Poland and Lithuania. The show argues that this was the custom of the day and that the best thing now is simply to lay everything on the table for all the world to see. But the clock cannot be turned back.

Not until the Congress of Vienna in 1815 (notice how that date falls after Sweden’s empire collapsed, a happy coincidence, no doubt) did countries in Europe generally agree that taking booty was a war crime. So there’s a cutoff date, a legal line in the sand.

Which will not placate the Danes, you can bet on that. Under the Communists, Poland and Czecho-slovakia also made some noises about getting back what Sweden took. The Swedes volunteered to return a treasured scroll to the Poles as a goodwill gesture.

The Czechs longed for the Silver Bible, produced around 520 in Ravenna, Italy. It had wended its way to a monastery in Essen, Germany, before ending up in the hands of Rudolph II in Prague, from whom Sweden’s Queen Christina grabbed it in 1648. Recently the Swedes have loaned the so-called Devil’s Bible to the Czech Republic, but they are not going to fork over either Bible permanently.

Former Eastern bloc countries are caught today between pressing to recover works like these Bibles and proving themselves to be agreeable partners in the EU. It is a tricky diplomatic problem that 17th-century monarchs like Christina clearly did not face.

“Do not forget to procure and send me the library and the rarities there in Prague,” she instructed her troops. “These, as you know, are all I really care about.”

Her father, King Gustavus Adolphus, at least had looted in what you might call a more enlightened way, to fill Sweden’s then-backward libraries and churches. She treated war like a shopping spree.

Which raises the question: Does it matter whether booty comes from good wars or bad ones, from evil owners or helpless ones, from public places or obscure corners and rich men’s vaults? In principle, the answer should be, “No, it doesn’t matter.” But Germany in World War II stole art from its victims; the Soviets then looted Germany when their troops overran Berlin. In Germany’s case, it’s considered a war crime. Russians insist their actions were just revenge.

And now the descendants of two great czarist-era Russian collectors are pressing the Russian government to compensate them for what the Soviets took from their families, using a show at the Royal Academy in London of loans from Russia to press their case. And good luck to them with the current Russian regime.

Meanwhile, the Leopold Museum in Vienna, Austria, a decade ago entangled in an ugly tussle over the return of several Egon Schieles to Jewish families, has become mixed up in a fresh dispute. A Green Party politician called the museum’s present show “the greatest display of looted art” in years and demanded an investigation. Because the Leopold is technically a private foundation — notwithstanding that it is paid for by the state — Rudolf Leopold, 82, a notoriously tone-deaf egomaniac, instantly declared that a recent Austrian restitution law did not apply to his museum.

Besides, he said to the Austrian weekly Falter a few days ago, Jewish heirs are “only interested in money.”

Truth is, profiteering sometimes sadly does play a part in the patrimony debates, which always end up enriching lawyers and auctioneers, but what Jewish heirs do with their recovered property is finally none of Leopold’s business. His remark speaks to deeper problems, for which money is a metaphor. Put differently, cultural property has always been a battlefield for waging old wars by other means.

No solution can rely just on laws and logic. The Congress of Vienna in 1815 as the moral dividing line will not satisfy the Greeks, who want Elgin’s marbles back. Restitution and patrimony disputes ultimately come down to emotions and the vagaries of realpolitik.

One of the treasures of the Swedish armory is a helmet that belonged to Ivan the Terrible — the first czar or Russia who died in 1584 — which came from the Poles, who nabbed it from Moscow. The Swedes now claim it as their national heritage, naturally, but so do the Poles, although it is Russian. Nearby is a sword, taken from Prague in 1648, a celebrated symbol of Czech pride because for a long time it was believed to have belonged to Jan Zizka, the great 15th century Czech warrior.

Then research revealed not long ago that the sword was made in the 17th century.

But the Czechs want it all the same. Symbolism outweighs facts, which pretty much speaks to the whole patrimony issue.

“Forgetting, and I would say even historical error,” the French philosopher Ernest Renan once wrote, “is an essential factor in the history of a nation.”

If nothing else, arguments over patrimony keep historical objects alive. The blogosphere is buzzing with documented misdeeds by imperialist collectors and quisling museums. But we may allow Sweden its Congress of Vienna, and its booty, while holding to account the beneficiaries of Nazi terror, not because the arguments for this are airtight but because this suits our common sense of decency and modern justice.

In so doing, we should not lose sight of the fact that nationalism is often at the root of these cultural disputes, aided by righteous indignation. Objects of historic eloquence, away from their homeland, can be sources of national pride, but they can also be potent diplomats of cultural exchange, so long as they are accessible. Accessibility matters far more than ownership at the end of the day.

Outside the Royal Armory, a winter wind rustled the banner at Sweden’s National Museum, across the bridge. There, in the permanent collection, a portrait by Orlando Fiacco showed the aged Titian, craggy, with a hawk’s nose and deep-set eyes, staring down death. A Cranach of Venus and Cupid, a few feet away, cast the two naked figures against a black backdrop: she holding a see-through veil, her red locks flung to the side, one hip thrust, while Cupid stands on one foot.

They’re dancing. An Italian picture and a German one, now Swedish treasures.

The labels identified the origin of both, in small print: Prague, 1648.

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