Fairness in Restitution?


Fairness in Restitution?

Restitution and the art world’s reliance on provenance as a pillar of the market for art and cultural objects has been thrown back into the limelight this month. The world’s media is awash with reports and speculation following the astounding news that a haul of art estimated to be worth over $1billion was been discovered in a flat in Munich. 

The owner of the flat is Cornelius Gurlitt, the 80 year old son of art collector Hildebrand Gurlitt, he had over 1,400 works of art stored and stashed amongst his own domestic belongings.  It is thought that the art, including works by Picasso, Matisse and Max Beckmann, were part of his father’s collection amassed during the 1930s and 1940s, when Joseph Goebbels put Hildebrand Gurlitt in charge of selling much of the Nazi branded “degenerate” art to foreign buyers abroad.  Gurlitt, despite having a Jewish grandmother, was chosen by the Nazis for this task because of his vast expertise and network of contacts.  It is now believed Gurlitt Senior sold much of works he ‘collected’ to German buyers and hoarded the rest.  The Gurlitt’s had always claimed most of their own private collection had been destroyed in an Allied bombing on Dresden.  It now appears this was not the case.

The fallout of this discovery will continue – not least for previous owners of the Gurlitt works, and the heirs of these owners, who may claim ownership or compensation for being ‘robbed of their heritage’ and in some cases an inheritance.

It will also be felt much wider amongst collectors, dealers, auctioneers and the museums and galleries over the world. It will highlight even more, if that is possible, the issues of provenance gaps in works of art. Tracing an art work’s history can be challenging at the best of times, authoritative catalogue raisonnés can even be inaccurate on attribution,  and gaps in the provenance of works of historical significance can affect our understanding of the history or art and development of art movements as well as reducing the value of works themselves on the open market.

An untainted provenance is what any buyer or handler of art seeks for ease and ultimately legal title, but it is one that can be fraught with difficulty.

An example of one such difficulty is the shifting of art historical significance and fashion in the art market and its effect on the value of particular artists or movements in art. Egon Schiele’s work was disparaged by many during the artist’s lifetime and he had few patrons, but now even his works on paper change hands regularly and for not insignificant amounts of money. [Monica Dugot, Art Persepctiev 2011: How Christie’s Rises to the Challenge of Looted Art, HOLOCAUST ART LOOTING AND RESTITUTION AYMPOSIUM 23 June 2011, Palazzo Turati, Milan]

The most notorious gap of our generation is that between 1933 and about 1948 when many works located in Europe were lost, stolen, destroyed and arguably legitimately (though more likely nefariously) sold privately. For many, the restitution (or not) of works of art that come to light and/or survived this period can raise very personal, emotional, geo-political and even moral questions. Should a previous owner of a previously looted work of art be: (i) automatically granted title over that work?; or (ii) a share of the value of such work? If so what value is to be placed on that work? What if there are, as is very often the case, numerous heirs to the work? Should the work reside in the country to which is most culturally drawn or the original owners’ country of residence? There are so many questions.  Maybe a starting point would be to ask, to consider: what is fair?

What would help the art world to reach ‘fair’ solutions in these situations? Certainly transparency would assist everyone.  There is no international law of restitution or even an agreed set of guidelines by which institutions, dealers, auctions houses and collectors can abide.  There is convention and if added to that there can be integrity in dealing, where practicality and consistency are also the hallmarks of art professionals and others then perhaps there can be fairness of restitution – and an acceptance that it will likely be very different for every piece of art that is fortunate enough to be found.