Thu, Mar 13, 2008 - Page 9 News List

When does ill-gotten booty become legitimate cultural property?

European spoils of war have often included cultural relics and art pieces, but it remains unclear when they should be returned to their countries of origin

By Michael Kimmelman  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , STOCKHOLM

It is hard to find anyplace in Europe today, even in peaceable Sweden, where people are not squabbling over cultural property and the spoils of war.

For some time, it turns out, a handful of nationalist Danes have been loudly barking about booty that the Swedes nabbed 350 years ago in a war with Denmark. The cache includes an ornate canopy from Kronborg Castle, of Hamlet lore, and recently people in Skane, a region in the south of Sweden that was ceded by Denmark in 1658 after losing the war, said they wanted the canopy handed over.

In other words, one part of Sweden claimed restitution from, well, the rest of Sweden. An Internet poll by a Swedish newspaper revealed that a majority of residents there apparently still harbor dreams of Danish citizenship and resent their calm, polite, democracy-loving Swedish masters.

On Valentine's Day, a Danish newspaper went so far as to run a front-page headline accusing Ikea -- the furniture giant founded by a Swede, which Danes have long loved to hate -- of "bullying Denmark" by giving comfy sofas and shiny tables Swedish and Norwegian place names while assigning Danish names to doormats and rugs.

"I don't think this can be a coincidence," a Danish professor is quoted as saying on The Local, an English-language Swedish Web site.

He called the practice "cultural imperialism."

Feeling guilty about my living room carpet, I decided to stop the other day into the Royal Armory here for a show called "War Booty" to see if the Swedes had anything to say for themselves. The exhibition ends up being a refresher course in history for a nation that, having not fought a battle since losing Finland to the Russians 200 years ago, clearly prefers to think of itself as the home of Dag Hammarskjold -- the second secretary-general of the UN -- rather than as a bygone empire.

But into the 18th century, as the show recounts, Sweden stocked its libraries and museums and churches with stolen arms, books, altarpieces, textiles and art by painters like Titian and Tintoretto, Durer and Archimboldo. Much of this loot was pinched from Poland and Lithuania. The show argues that this was the custom of the day and that the best thing now is simply to lay everything on the table for all the world to see. But the clock cannot be turned back.

Not until the Congress of Vienna in 1815 (notice how that date falls after Sweden's empire collapsed, a happy coincidence, no doubt) did countries in Europe generally agree that taking booty was a war crime. So there's a cutoff date, a legal line in the sand.

Which will not placate the Danes, you can bet on that. Under the Communists, Poland and Czecho-slovakia also made some noises about getting back what Sweden took. The Swedes volunteered to return a treasured scroll to the Poles as a goodwill gesture.

The Czechs longed for the Silver Bible, produced around 520 in Ravenna, Italy. It had wended its way to a monastery in Essen, Germany, before ending up in the hands of Rudolph II in Prague, from whom Sweden's Queen Christina grabbed it in 1648. Recently the Swedes have loaned the so-called Devil's Bible to the Czech Republic, but they are not going to fork over either Bible permanently.

Former Eastern bloc countries are caught today between pressing to recover works like these Bibles and proving themselves to be agreeable partners in the EU. It is a tricky diplomatic problem that 17th-century monarchs like Christina clearly did not face.

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