December 6, 2013

Gurlitt Art Collection: The Economist publishes letter from Judge Tompkins on "Hildebrand Gurlitt's secret"

Here's a Letter published in The Economist (December 7, 2013; from the print edition):
Dealing with stolen art
* SIR – The discovery of a treasure trove of so-called “degenerate” art in a Munich flat triggers many challenges for Germany, not the least of which is, what to do with all these unique art works (“Hildebrand Gurlitt’s secret”, November 9th)? If many of the works were stolen from their original owners around 70 or so years ago then they should be returned to the heirs of those same dispossessed owners.
Getting close to doing that is the great challenge. Undoing the harm of the theft of any work of art, even more so when the theft was part of the evil of the Nazi regime, is a uniquely international problem. It demands both an international but also a creative answer. What is needed is, in short, an adhoc International Art Crime Tribunal. Such a tribunal would be assisted by art historians, provenance researchers, advocates to assist the commission and, crucially, claimant advocates and advisers to work with claimants so that they can properly and effectively present their claims. By this means the tribunal could create the kind of independent, neutral ground necessary for the lasting resolution of the disputes that will inevitably arise concerning the stolen art.
The tribunal should be entrusted with the task of resolving the fate of each work of art, not only by deciding the historical and legal claims to it, but also by explicitly evaluating, and giving equal weight to, the moral claim of the claimant. This is crucial. In the past claims to art looted in wartime have been undermined or destroyed by insufficient legal evidence to establish prior ownership, even though the moral claim for return of looted art is clear.
None of this is new. Precedents for all these aspects of the proposed tribunal exist, and have in a variety of settings and circumstances been used during recent decades. The challenges presented by these pictures provide a rare chance to bring together many of the valuable lessons learned over the long years of hard-won, accumulated experience gained in trying to undo the art crimes of the Nazis.
JUDGE ARTHUR TOMPKINS
Trustee and faculty member of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art
Hamilton, New Zealand

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