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


"Forgetting, and I would say even historical error," the French philosopher Ernest Renan once wrote, "is an essential factor in the history of a nation."

If nothing else, arguments over patrimony keep historical objects alive. The blogosphere is buzzing with documented misdeeds by imperialist collectors and quisling museums. But we may allow Sweden its Congress of Vienna, and its booty, while holding to account the beneficiaries of Nazi terror, not because the arguments for this are airtight but because this suits our common sense of decency and modern justice.

In so doing, we should not lose sight of the fact that nationalism is often at the root of these cultural disputes, aided by righteous indignation. Objects of historic eloquence, away from their homeland, can be sources of national pride, but they can also be potent diplomats of cultural exchange, so long as they are accessible. Accessibility matters far more than ownership at the end of the day.

Outside the Royal Armory, a winter wind rustled the banner at Sweden's National Museum, across the bridge. There, in the permanent collection, a portrait by Orlando Fiacco showed the aged Titian, craggy, with a hawk's nose and deep-set eyes, staring down death. A Cranach of Venus and Cupid, a few feet away, cast the two naked figures against a black backdrop: she holding a see-through veil, her red locks flung to the side, one hip thrust, while Cupid stands on one foot.

They're dancing. An Italian picture and a German one, now Swedish treasures.

The labels identified the origin of both, in small print: Prague, 1648.

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