March 29, 2012

Catching up with Judge Tompkins About his "Art Crime during Armed Conflict" course at the University of Waikato's Law School

University of Waikato's Law School
Judge Arthur Tompkins, an instructor at ARCA's Postgraduate Certificate Program in International Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection Studies, also taught a course in February in his home country.  ARCA Blog caught up with him to see how it went in New Zealand.

Tell us about the Art Crime course you presented earlier this year at the University of Waikato?

The University of Waikato's Law School hosted the course and offered it as a credit course to their own students.  It was also offered as a non-credit coruse through the Continuing Education arm of the University. The course was entitled "Art Crime during Armed Conflict", and, similarly to the course I teach in Amelia as part of the ARCA Postgraduate, it was a five-day intensive course, comprising 5 hours of teaching each day for a week during the height of our Southern Hemisphere summer. We cover two thousand years of the history of art crime during war, and the international and private law responses to it. And all in five fun-filled and fascinating days! 

We ended up with 16 students in the group, from three countries and two hemispheres, with the largest sub-group being law students (I was teaching the course within a Law School, after all!). But the class also included a working artist, two art historians, a police officer, a doctor, an art gallery director, a cultural heritage worker, and others.  It all made for a vibrant and energetic group, and we had some spirited discussions!  And on the last day, ARCA's Noah Charney was able to join us, via Skype, from Slovenia, which was a real highlight.

University of Waikato's campus
At least two of the group will be in Amelia for this year's Art Crime Conference on 23/24 June, and in addition, in the last few days, I have learnt that one of the group has been accepted into the full ARCA Postgraduate Program, so will get to spend the entire Italian summer living and studying in Amelia.

It is likely that the course will be offered every second year at Waikato University, so the next occasion will be in February 2014. I am presently investigating offering a similar course elsewhere in New Zealand in the intervening year.

What time period do students seem most interested in? Nazi theft?

The students were from a wide range of backgrounds and interests, as I said, and I think that as a result no one area or era stood out.  They have written (or are writing - the assignments from the for-credit students are due soon!) assignments on an equally wide range or topics - which is, I think, a testament to the breadth of scholarship that falls under the art crime umbrella.  And because the course covers not only the historical background to art crimes during wars over the centuries, but also the international and national legal responses, there is something of real interest there for everyone.

What do you think are the most contentious legal issues involved in conflict art?

Two difficult issues continue stand out for me - first, the return of objects taken during past armed conflict, that are held currently by a state or national institution, and where there is a call for return.  In that context no issue of private ownership arises, but rather the issue revolves around often contentious questions of the principles underlying the legal structures around the state's continued retention of the object, and the ability or willingness of a state, or its politicians, to relinquish possession. Secondly, the spectrum of responses by legal systems around the world to the bona fide purchaser rule - where someone has paid a reasonable price without knowledge of the fact that the item had in the past been stolen, do they or should they prevail over the original, dispossessed owner's rights? Different legal systems around the world adopt often mutually exclusive positions on this issue, and despite decades of work, the gulf remains unbridged.  We need to find some way of reconciling the irreconcilable!

In 2009 you spoke at the International Art Crime Conference in Amelia about a proposed International Art Crime Tribunal.  As you have now taught this course three times, how have your ideas about an IACT evolved? What would it take to make it happen and what do you think would be some of the first cases that you would like to see be dealt with?

I would still love to see such a Tribunal established, and nothing that I have seen or read or heard over the last three years has changed that view - to the contrary, there is still much to recommend it.  The United Kingdom's Spoliation Panel has shown that a tribunal can effectively apply both legal and moral criteria when resolving claims to disputed art, and, whilst effective in some cases, the litigation experience in the United States shows that the resolution of such disputes by "traditional" adversarial litigation brings with it inevitable constraints, in terms of access to justice, the restrictions inherent in the rules of evidence a court applies, and a likely win/lose result paradigm.  

What would it need to make this happen? As I said to the ARCA Conference in 2010, it needs a champion on the world stage, and a real commitment by a group of states with a single voice in the forums of international law - particularly the United Nations and within that, UNESCO - to make it happen.  Where either of those might be found, I do not know.  Until then, it will remain a lonely idea wandering at large in the world, although I was very heartened to hear Pablo Ferri support the idea at last year's ARCA Conference!  

By the way, I still think, for a whole lot of reasons, that Florence would be a very suitable seat for such a Tribunal!

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