As students of Columbia University, as well as residents of New York City, we’re constantly in contact with art. Indeed, our ID’s are basically a passport to museums, promising free admission to over 30 art and history museums in the five boroughs.
The story behind that art, however, may be more than just what’s written beside it on the plastic plaque. In March, a Matisse painting housed at a Norwegian museum was returned to a family residing in New York City after it was determined that the painting was stolen by the Nazis.
The painting, called Woman in Blue in Front of a Fireplace, was one of 162 paintings seized in September of 1941. Though the painting will now be back in the hands of its rightful owners, it was also an integral part of the museum’s collection. Therein lies the dilemma: Can art be owned and claimed as if it were any other object, or are the rules of ownership different in the case of art? The return of theWoman in Blue means it will no longer be on display. Is the return of the painting detrimental to the community at large? And if we knew the truth about the backgrounds of every piece of art, would we still be able to see each piece of art as separate from its history?
The simplest way to conceptualize art ownership is to think of art as a piece of property with an attributable market value. In 2001, Ernst Beyeler, a successful art dealer based in Switzerland, refused to return Kandinsky’s Improvisation No. 10 to Jens Lissitzky, a descendant of the artist from whom the painting was originally taken.
On the reverse side of the painting is a Nazi inventory number, making the painting’s history impossible to debate. Beyeler capitalized on a loophole in Swiss law that says “property bought in good faith and owned for five years acquires good title.” The United States doesn’t have such a policy—art is treated just like any other sort of property. In reality, art is much more complex.
Though art can technically be exchanged for capital, it’s hard to measure and monetize its reach and influence. According to Barnard art history professor Anne Higonnet, “One of the main aspects of art is that it keeps accumulating meaning after it’s made. There are powerful ways to make art meaningful by dispossessing people and claiming it for oneself.”
Hence, art, unlike a piece of clothing or a household appliance, holds the power to make a statement about whoever possesses it and has possessed it. Higonnet points out that “stealing art is particularly poignant because most of the things stolen during World War II was for base gain, while art was stolen to convince the Jews they weren’t human and take over their heritage.”
In cases like these, returning works of art to their rightful owners is more than just a matter of maintaining fair property ownership—it’s a matter of restoration. The ownership of Woman in Blue, for instance, involves not only its market value, but also its role as a symbol in the war of social and political dominance raised by the Nazis. Nevertheless, public display of the painting may allow the art itself to be raised above its fraught history; placing the painting in a private setting may only highlight the controversy surrounding it, making Woman in Blue more an object of political debate and less than example of Fauvist art.
Though the return of Woman in Blue is recent, the debate over art ownership is nothing new. One very famous example is the debate over the Elgin Marbles, which dates back to the early 19th century, when the pieces were purchased and put on display in the British Museum. These Greek sculptures were taken from the Parthenon by Thomas Bruce, the seventh earl of Elgin, with dubious evidence of permission from the Ottoman authorities, thus leading to debate over whether or not they should be returned to their home country.
While the air pollution and acid rain of Athens would damage the sculptures, a closer look reveals that the primitive cleaning methods of the 19th century may have destroyed certain finer details of the sculptures. Meanwhile, the remaining slabs have been placed in the New Acropolis Museum, which has been under restoration since 2008 to be more weather-resistant. In a February 2014 Telegraph article, Mark Hudson expresses that “There’s an undeniable romantic appeal in the idea of these objects ... being returned to the land from which they sprang. But ... this idea doesn’t go much beyond ‘niceness.’”
But even the word “stolen” has to be taken with a grain of salt when it comes to art. Due to social and political implications, the question of theft in the art world is not always as straightforward as it may seem.
As Barnard professor Alexander Alberro, who teaches modern and contemporary art, points out, “Many of the pieces reported stolen may not have been stolen at all, but sold under duress. Something like, ‘If you sell me this painting for $10, I’ll let you go.’ The problem is that lots of museums don’t want to acknowledge the ramifications of the artwork.” Taking this into consideration, it’s difficult to stomach the fact that much of the work that we see as students in our local museums may have similarly unacknowledged backgrounds.
“As a curator, I am all in favor of art being shared and seen by the largest public possible. Nonetheless, if work has been proven stolen, and can be returned to its lawful owners, it should be,” says Deborah Cullen-Morales, the chief director and curator of the Miriam & Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, Cullen-Morales adds, “This can be difficult when we get into the arena of cultural property going back centuries between colonized or warring nations, but for me, rightful ownership during the modern and contemporary era is quite clear-cut, and I would be horrified if somehow the issue compounded the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis or any others.”
Nevertheless, the fact remains that our education in the city might not be the same if all of their backgrounds were rightfully acknowledged. Perhaps the reason many admirers of art are oblivious to injustices in the art world is that they want to see an art piece as a work of art alone.
It may even be easier to see modern and contemporary pieces for what they are because they don’t carry the burden of resolving past conflicts. Yet as Higonnet related, “These things tend to keep on being complicated, as complications don’t get resolved when the art is returned. In my opinion, the greater the art, the more it belongs in the modern domain.”
Despite the endless debates that may lurk behind each work of art, perhaps it is more important to understand the power they hold without regard to these debates so that they fulfill the ultimate role of art: to be admired for what it is.