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It’s About Time: Heirs Challenge MoMA’s Right to Hold Nazi-Era Paintings

On August 23, 2011, Patricia Cohen of The New York Times examined a restitution claim brought against MoMA by the heirs of George Grosz, an Expressionist painter who fled Nazi Germany in 1933. (“Family’s Claim Against MoMA Hinges on Dates”) Grosz was not Jewish but faced persecution by the regime for his opposition to Hitler and the “degenerate” style of his paintings. He left three of his paintings in the care of his Jewish dealer, Alfred Flechtheim, who in turn fled Germany when the Third Reich Aryanized Jewish businesses.  It remains unclear whether Flechtheim sold the Grosz paintings or they were stolen from  but by the early 1950s, MoMA had purchased all three of them.

MoMA has won several lower court decisions in the case, arguing that the Grosz heirs filed the lawsuit too late under New York State law. The U.S. Supreme court will decide whether to hear the case next month.

MoMA’s determination to hold the Grosz paintings violates the International Council of Museums (ICOM) code of ethics, and international agreements supported by the U.S. government to faciliate restitution of looted and misappropriated Nazi-era art.  But agreements like the 1998 Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art  merely declare noble intentions; they are non-binding, without the force of law.

Marc Masurovsky, co-founder of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project, wrote a creative, imagined conversation with Cohen about this issue, clarifying several points from her article and making the case against MoMA’s position. See his blog post here.  (in archives after August 2011)

MoMA could learn from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which earlier this year initiated a settlement with the heirs of Jakob and Rosa Oppenheimer to retain four tapestries that were part of a forced sale in Berlin in 1935.  It’s about time, MoMA.

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No Italian Tour for the Mona Lisa

The Telegraph (UK) reports that Louvre officials have denied an Italian quest to send the Mona Lisa on a temporary sojourn to Florence, where the masterpiece was painted 500 years ago.  Art historian Silvano Vinceti spearheaded the effort, hoping to gather 100,000 signatures in support of the loan.

Not surprisingly, Louvre officials immediately rejected the idea of transferring the most important and famous work in the museum’s collection.  The Telegraph cites Vincent Pomarede of the Louvre, who argued that “any attempt to move the painting would cause incalculable damage — it’s just not worth the risk.  It is in an extremely fragile condition and it is unthinkable that it would be moved from the gallery.”

Pomarede surely makes a valid point, but is the painting’s fragility the only reason for this quick reaction?  The Mona Lisa now symbolizes the Louvre, touted as the world’s finest museum of art–all art.  Italian, Greek, Egyptian, Dutch, French.  The painting’s theft in 1911 and displacement to storage locations in Loire Valley chateaux during the Second World War serve as reminders that the Mona Lisa survived significant threats in the last century.  French officials will ensure that this key component of the patrimoine national is shielded from additional risks.

For the forseeable future, touring days in Italy and France are over for La Joconde–or is it La Gioconda?

Sources:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-news/8599588/Attempt-to-return-Mona-Lisa-to-Italy-dismissed.html

On the evacuation of French museum collections during the Second World War, see Karlsgodt, Defending National Treasures: French Art and Heritage under Vichy (Stanford UP, 2011).

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NATO won’t rule out bombing World Heritage Sites in Libya

In statements this week, NATO officials were not willing to rule out airstrikes on the UNESCO World Heritage Site in Leptis Magna, where it is rumored that Gadhafi is storing rocket launchers.  One official who declined to provide his name stated, “we will strike military vehicles, military forces, military equipment or military infrastructure that threaten Libyan civilians as necessary.” Wing Commander and NATO spokesman Mike Bracken of the British Royal Air Force later remarked rather ambiguously that “if we were to take on any targets, we would consider all risks.”[1]

On Tuesday, June 14, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, urged all parties to ensure the preservation of Leptis Magna and the Old Town of Ghadamès, also a World Heritage site, known as “the pearl of the desert.”[2]  Yesterday, June 16, the Archeological Institute of America (AIA) echoed this appeal by calling on Libya and the U.S.—not NATO—to protect the sites.  In a statement on the AIA website, the organization’s CEO Peter Herdrich stated, “It is our shared responsibility as citizens of the world to be aware of the devastating loss that would result from the destruction of these sites.  By bringing their value to light, we trust that neither side will be responsible for destroying our common heritage.”[3]

Bokova had issued a similar appeal in March 2011 to encourage NATO members and Libya to respect the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.  Eight members of the NATO coalition enforcing UN Resolution 1973 to protect Libyan civilians are party to the Convention: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, Qatar, Spain and the United States—Britain is not.  Article 4 of the Convention provides that contracting parties will refrain from “any use of the property and its immediate surroundings…for purposes which are likely to expose it to destruction or damage in the event of armed conflict….”[4]

The United States Senate delayed ratification of the 1954 Hague Convention until 2008, and did so partly in reaction to worldwide condemnation of the George W. Bush administration’s failure to protect Iraqi sites and museums in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.[5]  As a party to the Convention, the United States has a moral responsibility to assert a leadership role within the NATO coalition, stating unequivocally that all efforts will be made to protect Libyan heritage sites.

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Retired Academic Arrested in Israel for Alleged Antiquities Trafficking

John Lund, a retired lecturer at Brigham Young University, was arrested in Israel on Monday on suspicions of antiquities trafficking.  He was detained at Ben Gurion airport before boarding a flight to the U.S.  with$20,000 worth of checks and stash of ancient coins that may be illicit assets.  Lund had raised suspicions two weeks earlier by selling to American tourists ancient artifacts.  A search of his hotel room turned up hundreds of objects that may have been stolen from archeological sites throughout Israel.  Lund posted a bond of $7500 and was allowed to return to the U.S. Israeli authorities plan to file charges shortly.  If convicted of trafficking, Lund could face a three-year prison sentence.

Lund eared a Doctor of Education degree from Brigham Young University in 1972.  He has taught as an adjunct history instructor at several universities in Utah, Washington and California,  and Idaho, and is author of How to Hug a Porcupine: Dealing with Toxic and Difficult to Love Personalities.

If Lund is indeed guilty of trafficking, his case underscores the powerful temptation of trafficking, even among academics and teachers who would appear to be guided by a more reliable moral compass.

Sources: Daily Herald, May 19, 2011, http://bit.ly/lLfUyX; The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 18, 2011, http://chronicle.com/article/Retired-US-Academic-Is/127575/

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Controversial Monument to German Unification

Berlin has announced plans for a new monument to German unification to be built in East Berlin.  Titled “Citizens in Motion,” the planned monument would take the form of a 180-foot long seesawing disk that would rock back and forth as visitors moved across it.  The moving monument could accommodate as many as 1,400 people, with around 20 needed to launch the swaying action.

According to the designers, choreographer Sasha Waltz and architectural firm Milla and Parter, the monument will symbolize the role of individuals in shaping their community.  But what if the creative experiment goes awry, as some are predicting?  Uwe Hameyer, director of the Berlin Association of Architects and Engineers has argued that crowding around the monument could cause confusion and panic.  Frankfurt’s Allgemeine Zeitung suggested that restricting tourists’ access to the monument would recall not unification but East German repression.

Is the design a stroke of genius?  Innovative and groundbreaking?  Or misguided and potentially dangerous?

http://www.artinfo.com/news/story/37524/berlins-baffling-new-seesaw-of-a-monument-to-german-reunification/

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