Repatriation by popular referendum

John Constable's "Dedham from Langham"
John Constable’s “Dedham from Langham”

Doreen Carvajal reports for the New York Times on a novel effort by Alain Monteagle to recover this work of art seized from his family in France during World War II. Monteagle is attempting to gather enough signatures to force a referendum:

So Mr. Monteagle and his relatives have taken to the soapbox. They are using the local Swiss system of popular referendums — which require the signatures of at least 10 percent of registered voters, 2,500 in this case — to  bring the issue before elected officials, since the museum is owned by the town. And they are taking the early, tentative steps required to force the local legislature to put an issue to a vote; if the legislature were to approve, more signatures could be gathered for a communitywide vote.

A referendum is it seems the only legal avenue remaining for Monteagle, as the Swiss Museum claims to have acquired the work by donation in 1986:

The Constable painting, “Dedham From Langham,” a 19th-century landscape of the English countryside, was seized in Nice, France, in 1943, along with all the valuables of Mr. Monteagle’s great-aunt, Anna Jaffé, a childless British expatriate and wealthy Jewish art collector who had died a year earlier. Her French heir, a nephew who was Mr. Monteagle’s grandfather, died in Auschwitz.

The pro-Nazi Vichy government of France organized an auction in Nice, unloading everything from silver sugar pots and tapestries to paintings by Turner and Tenier.

Ultimately, the Constable painting passed among three new owners during the war and was purchased by a Geneva gallery, which sold it in 1946 to René Junod. He was an art collector and Swiss businessman who, with his wife, left a collection of 30 paintings to the museum here in 1986, along with money for renovation and expansion.

Whether Mr. Monteagle’s effort will be successful or not remains to be seen. But his cause may certainly receive a boost from the high-profile article.

  1. Doreen Carvajal, Wooing the Public to Recover Art, The New York Times, March 18, 2014.

New York’s highest court orders return of Assyrian gold tablet to Germany

The Assyrian gold tablet excavated by German archaeologists before WWI
The Assyrian gold tablet excavated by German archaeologists before WWI

“Allowing the Estate to retain the tablet based on a spoils of war doctrine would be fundamentally unjust.”

So held New York’s highest court in a ruling today ordering the return of this Ancient gold antiquity to Germany. This was the second appeal to resolve the dispute over this small tablet. In an earlier probate proceeding, the estate was allowed to keep the tablet on the grounds that the German museum had waited too long to make its claim. The German claimant was the Vorderasiatisches Museum, a branch of the Pergamon in Berlin.

Here’s the story of the tablet based on the court’s ruling. Its a 3,000-year-old gold tablet which dates to the 13th Century BCE. The tablet was found before the first World War by German archaeologists near the Ishtar temple in Ashur, Iraq. The tablet was in the inventory of a Berlin Museum starting in 1926. The Museum was closed during the second World War, and its collection was put in storage. But in 1945 the tablet was discovered to be missing.

The tablet “resurfaced” in 2003 when its possessor, Riven Flamenbaum, passed away and his daughter and executor of his estate Hannah listed a “coin collection” in the accounting. But her brother Israel objected to the accounting and asserted that what he described as a “gold wafer” was an ancient Assyrian artifact and properly belonged to a German Museum.

The court opinion is silent on how Flamenbaum may have acquired the tablet. The story according to the family was that the elder Flamenbaum, an Auschwitz holocaust survivor, acquired the tablet from a Russian soldier in exchange for cigarettes. Hannah Flamenbau is quoted by the AP with respect to her claim that “The thought was if we’re allowed to retain it, put it on display in one of the museums, whether down here in Battery Park City in Manhattan or even in Israel. Use it as a way to talk about the Holocaust … and my parents’ story”.

The estate argued that it should retain the tablet because of the doctrine of laches, an equitable legal principle that essentially says it would be unjust to let a claimant wait this long to make a claim. However, the New York Court of Appeals held that though there may have been a delay, it was not unreasonable in light of the circumstances, and importantly no injustice would be done to the estate. Especially considering there was an indication that Flamenbaum knew the tablet rightfully belonged to a German museum.

The other claim was that when Russia invaded Germany, Russia acquired artifacts like the tablet from Germany as spoils of war, and thus the German Museum could no longer hold good title. This legal argument conflicts with the steady stream of domestic and international principles of the last 150 years. You cannot invade a nation and strip it of its works of art. And so, this unlikely dispute which arose out of a dispute between siblings who lost their father results in the return of this gold tablet to Germany.

In re Flamenbaum, 213 NY Slip Op 07510 (N.Y. 2013).

Berlin Museum Seeks Return of Ancient Gold Tablet.” AP, October 15, 2013.

More War, More Looting

Jason bringing Pelias the Golden Fleece

From Jason and his argonauts to Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin, cultural takings are nothing new. So argues Richard J. Evans—Professor of History at Wolfson College, Cambridge, and Chair of the U.K. Spoliation Advisory Panel—in a terrific long-read that argues the looting of heritage during wartime continue despite attempts to police conflict.

It is a beautifully written historical summary of wartime looting, which puts the ancient world, modern unrest, and World War II in historical context. I really recommend giving the entire piece a read, but here are some highlights:

The history of [looting] goes back far indeed, beginning perhaps with Jason and the Argonauts looting the Golden Fleece; and it continued with the Romans’ habit of looting art from conquered cities in order to parade it through the streets of Rome in the ceremonial procession of the Roman triumph before putting it on display in the Forum.
. . .
ELGIN’S ACTIONS reflected his belief that educated Englishmen were the true heirs of classical civilization, whose legacy permeated the minds of educated elites across Europe. This influence was nowhere greater than in revolutionary France, where Napoleon’s victorious armies began concluding a series of treaties with conquered states across Europe, notably the Treaty of Tolentino, signed by the pope in 1797, that allowed them to appropriate artworks to stock the Louvre Museum, founded in 1793.
. . .
It is vital to learn the lessons of the Second World War and put effective arrangements in place in advance of future fighting to rescue and restore cultural objects and prevent looting. Such arrangements were not made in Iraq in 2003, and the devastation was vast. The international community cannot prevent looting and destruction in the course of civil unrest, but it can take steps to minimize it in cases of interstate conflicts. Above all, the art and museum world needs to be more vigilant in monitoring the trade in looted goods in the wake of conflicts such as those in Iraq or Afghanistan, and law-enforcement agencies need to step in with sanctions against those who encourage—or benefit—from it. In a globalized world, every state has, as the Hague Convention urged more than a century ago, a duty to act as the trustee of the culture of all nations, not just its own.

  1. Richard J. Evans, Art in the Time of War, The National Interest, May-June 2011, (last visited Apr 19, 2011).
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A History of Spoliation

Wayne Sandholtz has written a historical account of plunder and the norms which aim to prevent it over the last 200 years, Prohibiting Plunder. I have not had a chance to read it, but it looks promising. Here’s the description:

For much of history, the rules of war decreed that “to the victor go the spoils.” The winners in warfare routinely seized for themselves the artistic and cultural treasures of the defeated; plunder constituted a marker of triumph. By the twentieth century, international norms declared the opposite, that cultural monuments should be shielded from destruction or seizure. Prohibiting Plunder traces and explains the emergence of international rules against wartime looting of cultural treasures, and explores how anti-plunder norms have developed over the past 200 years. The book covers highly topical events including the looting of thousands of antiquities from the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad, and the return of “Holocaust Art” by prominent museums, including the highly publicized return of five Klimt paintings from the Austrian Gallery to a Holocaust survivor.

The historical narrative includes first-hand reports, official documents, and archival records. Equally important, the book uncovers the debates and negotiations that produced increasingly clear and well-defined anti-plunder norms. The historical accounts in Prohibiting Plunder serve as confirming examples of an important dynamic of international norm change. Rules evolve in cycles; in each cycle, specific actions trigger arguments about the meaning and application of rules, and those arguments in turn modify the rules. International norms evolve through a succession of such cycles, each one drawing on previous developments and each one reshaping the normative context for subsequent actions and disputes. Prohibiting Plunder shows how historical episodes interlinked to produce modern, treaty-based rules against wartime plunder of cultural treasures.

Ingo Venzke has a review in 19 European Journal of International Law 866 (2008).

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