November 6, 2012

Lynn Nicholas spoke as keynote speaker at DePaul's conference "Restitution and Repatriation: The Return of Cultural Objects"

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by Sarah Wilson, Second Year Law Student at DePaul University

Lynn Nicholas, the noted author of The Rape of Europa, presented a captivating and thoughtful keynote lecture at the “Restitution and Repatriation: The Return of Cultural Objects” conference held at the DePaul University College of Law. Hurricane Sandy may have hindered the quantity of speakers that attended the event, but the super-storm could not hinder the quality of Nicholas’ lecture. She addressed several issues surrounding restitution, many of which were raised in the acclaimed film about the dreadful lootings that occurred during World War II.

Nicholas examined Holocaust-era pillaging from a various perspectives, providing the audience with a broad roadmap of the different ideologies surrounding stolen objects. Of particular interest was the work of the Monuments Men (and Women) who dedicated their efforts to protecting the cultural identities of war-ravished countries. This group of American servicemen saved many of Europe’s artistic treasures and preserved much of the continental cultural heritage that came under threat of destruction during the war. Nicholas commented on the dichotomy of stolen objects: on one hand these objects are considered prizes of war, but on the other there is an essential consideration for common justice and decency that desires the return of such objects.

Nicholas raised an interesting point in the stance that Russia takes regarding looted Holocaust art. Russia—following the “prize of war” outlook—approaches restitution with an unwavering determination to maintain possession. This position is echoed in the final scenes of The Rape of Europa movie, and displays the reasons why these issues are not soon to be resolved. The government of the former Soviet Union nationalized all of the WWII works in its control at the close of the war. The country refused then—and still refuses now—to restitute the works to the pre-war owners. Whether this is viewed as the collateral damage to be suffered by other countries as the cost of doing war, or whether Russia simply feels entitled to the works that ended up within its borders, the debate continues: who are the proper owners of looted works?

The Hermitage Museum admittedly houses numerous items of suspicious origin, both on its gallery walls and hidden in the labyrinth of passageways beneath the building. Russian museums have even gone so far as to publish books about the Holocaust-era objects in their collections, an obvious display of their apathy for persons pillaged during the war. The country’s refusal to participate in restitution efforts displays a further problem: will these looted works ever be returned to the proper owners without a significant effort to harmonize international laws? In Nicholas’ opinion, the answer is no. Restitution may be morally admirable, but it appears that morals are often secondary to possession. Until the affected countries can develop mutually-beneficial methods for dealing with the problem, a solution remains elusive. As the search continues for a global resolution, the focus should remain on providing fair outcomes for all parties. Ex post facto looting from good faith purchasers of stolen objects is not the objective that Nicholas advocates.

Thousands of objects stolen during the war are still unclaimed and unrestituted. Increased litigation in the coming years appears inevitable. This is also due to the passing of the WWII generation, many of whom bequeathed stolen art to their unknowing heirs. Issues of ownership and proper title become increasingly relevant as these works find their way to the marketplace. While lawyers may aim to facilitate the harm suffered by wronged parties, their work may actually exacerbate the injury. Legal professionals often lack a proper understanding of provenance and the importance that it has on restitution attempts, and Nicholas stressed the imperative need of educating lawyers working in this field. Restituting objects becomes increasingly complicated if the ownership line is not given adequate weight. The issue is compounded by the fact that claims for looted works are frequently exaggerated, not only by lawyers, but also by media publicity. Numerous cases that result in amicable settlements regularly go unacknowledged. Nicholas also voiced her apprehension against litigation, claiming that efforts to enact restitution laws may be too political to be effective.

Nicholas served the audience well by using her all-encompassing expertise to educate the listeners about the importance of restitution. Nicholas refrained from giving a rosy-colored outlook of the future of looted objects. However, her candor leads one to believe that the path to global restitution is possible, albeit with several obstructions to overcome first.

Ms. Wilson is President of the Art and Cultural Heritage Law Society at DePaul.

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