Thursday, March 13, 2008

On looted art

Every time I step into the Metropolitan Museum and wander through the cavernous halls and rooms, I am struck by a singular thought - how much of the ancient and medieval art on display has gotten to this gilded credenza by legitimate means and how much a result of conquests, shady transfers, hidden booty and plain loot. Maybe the Met has good provenance records behind every piece of art and can back up most of the pieces with suitable documentation, but a recent art review in the Times about an exhibition underway in faraway Stockholm had me thinking about this some more.

“War Booty”, at the Royal Armory, Royal Palace, Stockholm showcases artifacts of great value that the Swedes grabbed illegally 350 years ago in a war with its neighbors. The article mentions that the Swedes filled their public institutions with stolen arms, books, textiles and art looted primarily from Poland, Denmark and Lithuania. Of course, in order to legitimize and legalize the proceedings, the exhibition organizers are helpful in pointing out that this (taking of war booty) was merely the custom of the day and that the best thing now is to simply lay everything on the table for the world to see. Legally, they are in the clear since taking of booty and carting off the spoils of war was not a ‘war crime’ until a treaty was signed between some of the relevant European powers in 1815 (the booty presented in this show predates that year).

In an age where provenance is everything and the art object genealogy is very important to the liquidity of the artwork/market, this show raises a very basic 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? Does it matter that the booty presented here should be entrusted in the hands of the Swedes just because of a treaty? This is even more relevant as the Swedes seem to brazenly call it war booty and then to add insult to injury, exhibit it for us to see. This is somewhat akin to stealing from your neighbors some years back, settling things with some kind of an agreement from a position of advantage and then years down the line, exhibit the spoils while showing off the stuff one actually stole from ones neighbors some time back. Also, reminds me of the theft of Kohinoor and countless other riches plundered by the English during their 300 year over-lordship in India from the 17th to the 19th centuries…

From the article: 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. One of the treasures of the Swedish armory is a helmet that belonged to Ivan the Terrible, 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’s 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 Czech warrior who died in the 15th century.

Art looted by the Nazi's in Paris, 1941, Picture looted from here.

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