Museums Won’t Let Go of Nazi-Looted Artwork

In a NewsWeek article, Elizabeth Campbell Karlsgodt discusses the issue of Nazi-looted artwork that is not properly returned to its rightful owners and questions why US museums are continuing to hold on to these pieces. To this day, many art pieces that were taken by the Nazis during World War II have not been returned to their owners or their heirs. This is a huge issue as many are in museums or have been purchased by other people or art collectors. With the theft happening many years ago, it is increasingly difficult to decide what belongs to whom. This issue, Karlsgodt explains, was presented in Helen Mirren’s film Woman in Gold, which is a true story. In the movie, the main character, Maria, battles with the Austrian and US courts to gain ownership of a painting of her aunt that was taken by the Nazis years before. When presented the case, the Austrian government believed that they had the rights to the painting. Because of this, Maria takes the case all the way up to the US Supreme court and they eventually ruled in her favor because there is an exception to sovereign immunity in the law “when a country violates international law with U.S commercial interests at stake.” Because of this case, the U.S began to restitute Nazi-looted art. Although the U.S began to take steps in returning the stolen art to its rightful owners, there were issues in getting museums to follow suite. After World War II, many museums purchased art that was looted by Nazis, whether they knew it was stolen or not. One of the museums that has been known for holding onto these pieces is the MoMA in New York, which has one of the largest and greatest modern art collections in the world. It was discovered that the museum’s founding director purchased artwork that was confiscated by Nazis. The museum has three paintings in particular that they bought from a dealer that sold them Nazi-looted art. When confronted with a lawsuit, however, MoMA emerged victorious. Although the holding on to Nazi looted art in this case is legal, is it ethical? Some would say that it is not for the obvious reasons that it was stolen and belongs to the artists’ family. However, through purchasing it, the museum has legal rights to the piece and would serve as a platform in which the art is appreciated by massive audiences. There is a big issue because by restituting this art, the government is essentially taking the art back many years later from an institution or person who rightfully bought it. The MoMA, for example, could have had those pieces for many years. They could be pieces that are loved and admired by many people who would no longer have the opportunity to see them. If the Mona Lisa, for instance, happened to be a stolen piece from many years ago that was eventually sold to the Louvre, it would be a tragedy for the government to have to take it away from that museum. That painting is one of the reasons the museum is so famous and praised by many. The MoMA could potentially have hundreds of artworks that were discovered to be Nazi-looted. However, is there a point where too much time has gone by to take them back? The solution ultimately lies with the government and how they regulate this art in museums. Many people in the art world want the US government to ensure that museums are not holding onto Nazi-looted art. Most U.S museums follow and abide by the “American Alliance of Museums” and the standards that it sets, however, there is no enforcement that is mandated by the government. Although the issue of Nazi-looted art has been discussed and agreed upon at the Washington Conference years ago, this problem still remains. It is difficult for museums to give up parts of their collections that have been there for years. I think that it ultimately should depend on how much time has past since the original artist created the painting. For example, if someone’s grandfather is the artist and the painting was taken from their family during World War II, it should be returned to them. Also, the museum or person that bought the painting should be compensated by the government. However, if the painting is hundreds of years old by an artist from many generations ago, the piece could arguably be in the realms of fair use. Therefore it should go to trial rather than being immediately returned to the owner, given that they eventually tried to claim it. With many years and generations passing, it can become difficult to tell who is telling the truth about owning the paintings as well. This can be an issue if people make up that a particular painting was taken from their family in the time of Nazi Germany. This is why governments in all parts of the world should have a thorough and thought-out system for determining the rightful owners of these paintings. Many art pieces to this day remain in museums or in the hands of the non-rightful owners. However, we should not rely on the ethics of the museums and trust that they will agree to return them. The museums want to hold onto these pieces, as they spent a lot of money on them and are they are essential parts of their collections. It is unlikely that these museums will take the initiative to give back the pieces when the government is not heavily enforcing it or looking into it. Ultimately, it is up to the government to take this step and invest in this issue. The paintings that were stolen by the Nazis should be returned to their rightful owners, no matter what. For the cases in which it is more unclear who the owner should be, each art piece should be taken on separately in court. There is no black and white answer sometimes when it comes to restitution. However, governments everywhere need to take steps in determining, with greater care, where these artworks belong. Sources:

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