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


"Do not forget to procure and send me the library and the rarities there in Prague," she instructed her troops. "These, as you know, are all I really care about."

Her father, King Gustavus Adolphus, at least had looted in what you might call a more enlightened way, to fill Sweden's then-backward libraries and churches. She treated war like a shopping spree.

Which raises the question: Does it matter whether booty comes from good wars or bad ones, from evil owners or helpless ones, from public places or obscure corners and rich men's vaults? In principle, the answer should be, "No, it doesn't matter." But Germany in World War II stole art from its victims; the Soviets then looted Germany when their troops overran Berlin. In Germany's case, it's considered a war crime. Russians insist their actions were just revenge.

And now the descendants of two great czarist-era Russian collectors are pressing the Russian government to compensate them for what the Soviets took from their families, using a show at the Royal Academy in London of loans from Russia to press their case. And good luck to them with the current Russian regime.

Meanwhile, the Leopold Museum in Vienna, Austria, a decade ago entangled in an ugly tussle over the return of several Egon Schieles to Jewish families, has become mixed up in a fresh dispute. A Green Party politician called the museum's present show "the greatest display of looted art" in years and demanded an investigation. Because the Leopold is technically a private foundation -- notwithstanding that it is paid for by the state -- Rudolf Leopold, 82, a notoriously tone-deaf egomaniac, instantly declared that a recent Austrian restitution law did not apply to his museum.

Besides, he said to the Austrian weekly Falter a few days ago, Jewish heirs are "only interested in money."

Truth is, profiteering sometimes sadly does play a part in the patrimony debates, which always end up enriching lawyers and auctioneers, but what Jewish heirs do with their recovered property is finally none of Leopold's business. His remark speaks to deeper problems, for which money is a metaphor. Put differently, cultural property has always been a battlefield for waging old wars by other means.

No solution can rely just on laws and logic. The Congress of Vienna in 1815 as the moral dividing line will not satisfy the Greeks, who want Elgin's marbles back. Restitution and patrimony disputes ultimately come down to emotions and the vagaries of realpolitik.

One of the treasures of the Swedish armory is a helmet that belonged to Ivan the Terrible -- the first czar or Russia who died in 1584 -- which came from the Poles, who nabbed it from Moscow. The Swedes now claim it as their national heritage, naturally, but so do the Poles, although it is Russian. Nearby is a sword, taken from Prague in 1648, a celebrated symbol of Czech pride because for a long time it was believed to have belonged to Jan Zizka, the great 15th century Czech warrior.

Then research revealed not long ago that the sword was made in the 17th century.

But the Czechs want it all the same. Symbolism outweighs facts, which pretty much speaks to the whole patrimony issue.

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