Making modern history, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam admits uncertainty about rightfully owning some of its permanent collection. Sixteen by modern masters like Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and Henri Matisse may not be legitimate possessions.
Margriet Schavemaker, the Stedelijk’s head of research, along with curators, Margreeth Soeting and Gregor Langfeld, has published the museum holdings with questionable records of ownership.
Credit the Dutch government’s mandate to root out art acquired during the Nazi occupation. The Stedelijk and 161 other Dutch museums have made their findings known in both Dutch and English.
Most likely prompting the mandate, issued in 2013, were Jewish claimants who ask that their collections, confiscated by the Nazis, be returned to them.
That said, Beatrix Ruf, the Stedelijk’s new director, believes she understands why German museums hesitate to do what her museum has done. Acknowledging questionable ownership would be like “opening a can of worms,” she said.
Even so, Ruf added, “Its key for a modern museum to work with its past. Your past is your identity.”
And there are many pasts to reckon with. Art stolen by the Nazis isn’t the only questionable museum holding. Some 700,000 art objects that were illegally excavated and exported out of Italy have been recovered.One question remaining is, where would museums be without stolen art? Then there’s another question. When giving back stolen art to its rightful owner, why do the wrongful owners get a reward?
You read that right. Even when museums agree to return stolen goods, the agreement is hard to come by without some plum.
In 2011, Princeton University Museum agreed to return eight antiquities to Italy. Maurizio Fiorillo, a government lawyer in Italy in charge of restitution issues, told the press that talks were “cordial but tough.” Tough?
How tough? The talks took eighteen months! And with the agreement came a bonus: possession of seven other works, plus four-year loans of four additional works! Such a deal.
Why the largess? Fiorillo explained it this way: “Italy doesn’t demand the return of looted art. It just wants to develop cooperation and fight clandestine excavations.” The thinking seems to be that if returned loot is rewarded, looting will stop.
Good luck with that. It might be just as likely that compensating those who stash stolen stuff will keep the stealing going? I’m just saying.
Italy’s politeness in all this is practically Zen-like. Culture Minister, Francesco Rutelli has characterized negotiations with institutions holding art of other lands as “complex.” You wouldn’t think that arranging to give back things that aren’t yours would be “complex,” especially given the number of codes in the U.S. that ban illicit exports.
In 1970, a UNESCO convention banned illicit circulation of a country’s cultural property. In 1986, the International Council of Museums adopted codes that asked for due diligence for items entering a collection. The code was revised again in 2004.
One caveat? Compliance is voluntary. Probably because if every museum were to return art treasures to their original owners, exhibit examples from France to Florida, would thin out.