Stealing Identities: The Journey of Looted Art
For thousands of years, art has remained a source of cultural power. Art gives us clues about past life. It reveals symbolism of a culture’s virtues and represents the history of a country’s people. No wonder art is historically a prisoner of war, stripped from its owners as an attempt to erase a culture’s identity. Looted art has remained a cultural issue for thousands of years. But only in the last 100 years, with the booming art market and rising consciousness of artistic-value, have we focused on establishing legal resolution for stolen antiquities.
WHY LOOTERS LOOT
For some, looting was power. It had little to do with monetary value, and everything to do with stripping a society of its cultural value. It became a standard part of the processes of warfare – a step in the plan to conquer. The Kneeling Attendants [Figure 1] date back to the 10th Century, belonging to the Koh Ker temple from Cambodia’s Khmer empire. In the early 1970’s, Cambodia was subsumed by a violent civil war. Hundreds of antiquated artifacts fell victims to the war, looted to strip Cambodia of its precious statuary and valuable cultural heritage. This is only one example of a civilization whose culture was erased by the taking of its art.
For others, looting makes for a lucrative underground business. Thieves target a variety of victims ranging from archeological excavation sites, to the homes of private dealers, to the museums built to house historical masterpieces. In March/April of 2003, Iraq’s cultural institutions and archeological sites were stripped of thousands of priceless historical artifacts. Although many artifacts stolen from the National Museum were returned, 7,000 – 10,000 pieces remain missing. Among these is the famous diorite statue of Entemena [Figure 2] and nearly 5,000 cylinder seals.
Likewise, looters target private collectors for an easy steal. In October 1995, it was reported that a $3 million Stradivarius violin had been stolen from the New York City apartment of Erica Morini, a famous violinist. The violin was originally crafted in 1727 by Antonio Stradivari, known as the Davidoff-Morini Stradivarius [Figure 3]. Museums are similarly endangered by the threat of hungry looters. In October 1969, two thieves entered the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo, Italy and looted the Caravaggio Nativity [Figure 4] from its frame, a work that is valued at over $20
million. And in December 2002, two thieves used a ladder to climb the roof and break in to the Vincent Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. They looted Van Gogh’s View of the Sea at Scheveningen and Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen, valued at $30 million.
One would think that art is safe on the walls of a Museum, or in the private living room of a collector. But the reality remains; looting is a vital black market business that will continue to thrive as the art-market pushes to price antiquities higher and higher.
The Holocaust is possibly the most emblematic era of cultural looting. An integral focus of the Nazi genocide was the strategically planned looting of Jewish property for the benefit of the Reich. A tremendous amount of artistic pieces were spread throughout Europe, later landing in the hands of art dealers. Although a slew of litigation led to the eventual return of several works, the majority of Holocaust-looted art remains unreturned to its rightful owners.
Although the Holocaust-looting only represents a miniscule component of the tragic history of Jewish survival, there exists a silver lining. In direct response to the Nazi regime, a group of nations bridged together to implement a title registration system that could return stolen art to its rightful owner. The Nuremberg Tribunal held that Holocaust-looting was a war crime, and under international law, affects all transactions relating to the goods, including transfers to third parties. Under this framework, international law asserted (1) that no nation could claim ownership interests in Holocaust-looted art over the original owners, (2) that each nation holds an affirmative obligation to identify and return Holocaust-looted art; and (3) that laws or policies hindering the return of Holocaust-looted art are deemed invalid. This endeavor marked one of the first acknowledgements of legal rights associated with stolen art. It paved the way for legislation that could effectually return a world of stolen artwork to its rightful owners.
This body of international law came shortly after the National Stolen Property Act of 1934. Although enacted in the early 30’s, this Act did not become an instrumental tool in the regulation of looted art until the ruling of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals case, United States v. Hollinshead, in 1974. In that case, prosecutors utilized the law to assert conviction of traffickers of pre-Columbian antiquities form Guatemala. The Act has since been a popular tool in the fight against smugglers.
Other laws have served vital functions in the regulation of looted art. In 1970, a UNESCO convention gave signatories the ability to seek the return of illegally obtained cultural treasures and established rules to guide collectors. This not only served as an important international acknowledgement of the issue, but also sparked a boom of cultural patrimony laws in different countries. Following the 1970 convention, the U.S. passed the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act in 1983 interpreting how the UNESCO convention should be enforced. It established a power of broad interpretation to decide how the nation’s restrictions on exported cultural property should be followed.
WORKING TOWARDS AN EASY RETURN
Countries have continued to acknowledge the need for legislation dealing with looted art. As such, they have offered a wide range of laws aiding the regulation of internationally dealt art and adapted current laws to ease the burdens on individuals attempting to reclaim lost art.
Most recently, German authorities proposed a law earlier this year that would lift the country’s 30-year statute of limitations on recovery of stolen property. In theory, enacting the law would make it easier for Jewish families to seek the return of art, furniture or other valuable goods taken from them by the Nazis. The attempt to change current German legislation followed the 2013 Minich public controversy. It dealt specifically with the discovery of hundreds of looted artworks reaching nearly a billion dollar valuation. The works were located in the Minich home of Cornelius Gulitt, the son of an art dealer who worked for the Nazis during WWII.
Winfried Bausbac, the Bavarian justice minister drafted the proposed legislation.The current law, codified in Germany’s civil code, states that owners may not seek return of their property more than 30 years after it was stolen. For WWII victims, this meant that the ability to claim legal restitution expired in 1975. The law seemed inappropriate given the circumstances and the German’s called for a modification that could acknowledge the particular disadvantage imposed on Jewish families and their rights to reclaim lost property. There are still issues to overcome with the new legislation, like requiring owners to prove malicious intent on the part of the current property owner. However, it represents a shifting public attitude and a step in the right direction towards establishing boundaries that can protect the interests of victims of looting.
Although the world has made tremendous progress over the last century, legislation surrounding looted art is a relatively new concept – the fight to protect lost art has just begun. Lawmakers must now focus equally on regulating looted art, creating legislation to return stolen art to its rightful owner, and establishing preventative measures to diminish international travel of stolen artwork. There is still a tremendous amount of work that remains, but we are surely focusing our attention in the right direction.
 Abby Seiff, How Countries are Successfully Using the Law to Get Looted Cultural Treasures Back (July 1, 2014), available at http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/how_countries_are_successfully_using_the_law_to_get_looted_cultural_treasur.
 FBI Top Ten Art Crimes: Art Crime Team, Iraqi Looted and Stolen Artifacts, available at http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/investigate/vc_majorthefts/arttheft/iraqi-stolen-and-looted-artifacts.
 FBI Top Ten Art Crimes: Art Crime Team, Theft of the Davidoff-Morini Stradivarius, available at http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/investigate/vc_majorthefts/arttheft/davidoff.
 FBI Top Ten Art Crimes: Art Crime Team, Theft of Caravaggio’s Natiity with San Lorenzo and San Francesco, available at http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/investigate/vc_majorthefts/arttheft/caravaggio.
 FBI Top Ten Art Crimes: Art Crime Team, Theft of Caravaggio’s Van Gogh Museum Rovvery, available at http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/investigate/vc_majorthefts/arttheft/vangogh.
 Owen C. Pell, Holocaust-Looted Art: Lost But Not Forgotten (Fall 2002), available at, http://www.law.virginia.edu/html/alumni/uvalawyer/f02/opinion.htm.
 Abby Seiff.
 Melissa Eddy, Germans Propose Law to Ease Return of Art Looted by Nazis, The New York Times (Feb. 13, 2014), available at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/14/world/europe/germany-considers-lifting-statute-of-limitations-on-cases-involving-stolen-art.html?_r=0.