25 October 2016

The domino effect

by Marc Masurovsky

In its most basic form, the domino effect is an uncontrollable chain reaction, an irreversible sequence of events brought about by one well-placed flick against a tile, which tumbles the neighboring tile, and then another tile, and then another tile, in a long line of domino tiles until the entire deck is down. Some of these “domino effects” make for fun, easy-to-produce effects. Many of us have tried them at least once to everyone’s delight.

Now apply the same idea to countries. The last time the domino effect was seriously invoked, it was in the form of a threat. American politicians and senior military officers used it to justify a hardline approach in Indochina against the “communist threat.” If one country “went” communist, the rest would fall. Here, the domino was South Vietnam. The other tiles were Laos and Cambodia, and then, who knows? Thailand? India? The “domino effect” was an integral component of the Cold War.
The domino theory in Southeast Asia

Let’s now turn our attention to the museum world. In order for the domino effect to work in the museum world, one needs a critical mass of cultural institutions predisposed to lean in one direction or another. In our case, the domino unit is “restitution”, the “return” of looted cultural assets to rightful owners, be they individuals, communities, tribes or source nations. For there to be a domino effect in the museum world, there needs to be a restitution, a repatriation which “tips the scales” in a way that paves the way for similar returns by other institutions and provokes a generalized onrush of claims that will ultimately provoke more returns, more repatriations, instability in the management of collections, loss of equilibrium in negotiations of loans with source nations, impending chaos, the end of the world as we know it.

Believe it or not, museum leaders and nations whose cultural institutions harbor looted cultural property have invoked the “domino effect” either to prevent restitutions or to isolate restitutions as unique cases which cannot be repeated, fearing that, if such restrictions are not imposed in a settlement, more claims will be filed and a generalized disgorgement of looted objects would ensue in favor of the aggrieved nations. As you know, that simply cannot happen.
The Wrestler from Koh Ker

The repatriation of the Koh Ker statues to Cambodia, it is argued, triggered a minor “domino effect” or a “breaking of the dam.” After Cambodia had won its case against Sotheby’s in December 2013, the matter could have been isolated to that one return. But there were many more statues located in different cultural institutions throughout the United States. The Metropolitan Museum of Art followed suit and agreed to return its two statues, followed by a return from Christie’s and the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, CA.  So did the Cleveland Museum of Art.

It is presumed that many more statues are located in European collections. Hence, the domino effect remained confined to the United States.

In the case of the Parthenon marbles, Michael Repps infers that the obstinacy of the British Museum to hold on to the marbles claimed by Greece constitutes a guarantee that, like Tom Thumb removing his digits from a hole in the proverbial dam thus causing the inevitable flood of the low lands, an unconditional surrender to Greece propelling the return of the marbles to their new home at the Acropolis Museum in Athens would trigger an irreversible chain of events, a domino effect, leading to uncontrolled disgorgement of cultural objects and their repatriation to aggrieved source. The counter argument is offered in a master’s law thesis entitled “What’s yours is mine—Indeterminacy in cultural property restitution debate” which was submitted to the University of Helsinki in 2014, by Pauno Soirila. In it, Soirila argues that the “domino effect’” threat is a non-argument since each restitution case is viewed as a unique case and should not cause such a massive disgorgement as threatened by some in the museum world and cultural officials in recipient nations. 
Parthenon Marbles on view at the British Museum, London
An unusual twist to the repatriation/domino effect dyad refers to the hypothetical “devolution” of Wales and Scotland which might provoke a deluge of repatriation requests against “English” museums that would gut them of significant numbers of objects. Hence, in a twist of irony, the threat of falling dominos may not come from those “nationalist” source nations which selfishly demand their looted property back, but rather from insurgent regionalist movements plaguing the halls of power in London. How fitting!

So, what’s all the hullaballoo about with all of these dominos falling and the world of museums as we know it collapsing around us because of incessant claims for return of looted cultural property to source nations and tribal communities?

In true fashion, France embodies the worst of the anti-restitution movement, whereby objects, as a rule, do not leave State-controlled museums under any circumstances. Once in, there is no conceivable exit. The principle of inviolability reigns over the management of cultural objects in French museums, regardless of provenance and origin.

In the case of the Oekyujanggak Royal Manuscripts which South Korea claimed, the French government rejected the Korean repatriation claim. Granted, the case was complicated. The French navy had stolen these sacred royal documents in 1866 presumably in retaliation for the deaths of nine Catholic priests. [This bears strange similarities to the punitive confiscation of bronzes in Benin  in 1897 as a retaliatory act by British colonial troops].

These manuscripts were rediscovered in 1975 at the “Bibliothèque nationale” in Paris. 
Sample pages from the Oekyujanggak Manuscripts

The idea of recovering these manuscripts first was discussed in 1991 by scholars at Seoul National University. South Korea filed a formal request for restitution in 1993. The claim quickly became entangled in larger trade issues between South Korea and France involving high-speed train contracts. [A similar entanglement occurred in the United States which linked high-speed train contracts between France and the United States to pending Holocaust-era claims against French railroads.] The discussion between the two nations evolved into a possible exchange through loans of artifacts of equal worth between the two nations.

As Professor Keun-Gwan Lee of Seoul National University rightfully asked during the ICECP conference held in Gyeongju on October 18-20, 2016, which law should be applied: the 1866 law or the 2011 law?

Regardless of what law applied, France invoked the “domino theory” and felt that an unconditional return of the royal manuscripts without any “contrepartie” from South Korea might provoke a generalized gutting of colonial-era plunder from French institutions.

In Korea, opposition built up and voiced against a proposed exchange of similar documents with Fraance, because, the argument went, any exchange or loan would be tantamount to a recognition of the plunderer’s right to good title, enabling nations like France to loot another nation’s treasures and get away with it.

In February 2011, an agreement was signed between France and South Korea outlining the terms under which the royal manuscripts could return to the Korean people. It wasn’t so much a return as a long-term loan renewable every five years. Hence, title remained with the French government while South Korea obtained the equivalent of “custodial rights” over their stolen royal manuscripts.

Furthermore, the French government insisted in Article 4 of the 2011 agreement that:

“The loan of the Uigwe manuscripts by France to Korea is a transaction characterized by its uniqueness, which cannot be replicated under any circumstance and cannot be viewed as setting a precedent…”

In other words, France would never repeat this folly again.

The so-called “domino effect” of repatriation and restitution of looted cultural assets is a convenient, albeit cynical, scarecrow invented by nations with long histories of cultural plunder to atone for and museum boards worldwide which fear the impending, unproven, gutting of their collections by aggrieved source nations should they surrender prized items. It’s unfortunate, however, that source nations should succumb to these idiotic arguments. We can only surmise that larger considerations—trade, politics, geopolitics—have more to do with the compromise settlements that put an end to these restitution claims than simple fears of a scarecrow wafting in the wind in some abandoned corn field.

A scarecrow

Peace? An unabashed biased view

by Marc Masurovsky

South Korea hosted the 6th International Conference of Experts on the return of Cultural Property (ICECP), a forum which it helped create in 2011. The three-day conference was held from October 18 to October 20, 2016, at the Hilton Hotel in Gyeongju, a historic city situated at three hours train ride south of Seoul.

The conference host was the Korean Overseas Cultural Heritage Foundation, an affiliate of the Korean Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA). It invited specialists and government officials from China, Cambodia, Greece, Turkey, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Several speakers, including Ieng Srong, director of movable heritage and museums section at UNESCO, and Keun Gwan Lee, a law professor and dean of planning and coordination at Seoul National University, called for peaceful solutions to be sought in the resolution of cultural heritage disputes worldwide. These conflicts regularly pit current possessors, i.e., museums in recipient nations, whether State-owned or privately-owned, against aggrieved communities or source countries from which the cultural property was illegally removed either as a result of colonial rule, military conflict, civil strife, or good-old fashioned commercial theft. Their presentations were complex, rich, and raised more questions than they themselves could answer. Thoughtful, they encapsulated the complexity of source nations’ attempts to recover the cultural property lost to predatory practices implemented by uninvited guests, invaders, colonizers, State-sponsored thieves backed by significant force and armies. Decades later, their treasured property remains displayed in the halls of “global” museums which pride themselves on providing to their loving public the result of their illicit purchases and acquisitions, indifferent to the twisted provenances that these objects carry with them.

Yes, negotiations can be fraught and frayed between aggrieved nations and the current possessors, self-described “internationalist” institutions which support a “global” view of displaying cultural objects, regardless of origin, licit or illicit. The strategies that source nations must consider using when attempting to recover their property can have direct consequences on their foreign relations, cultural, commercial, political, with the nations where their objects rest on display.

At what price must these negotiations be conducted, short of declaring war, to recover sacred and cultural objects, prized possessions that are an integral part of their cultural and spiritual heritage? What are the costs of maintaining a durable peace when the current possessors flaunt their acquisition and retention of title to these looted objects which source nations and aggrieved communities have asked to be returned to them out of respect for their heritage and the meaning, symbolism, and (non-monetary) value which they imbue in those objects. These arguments invariably fall on deaf ears, as the current possessors refuse to acknowledge them, so sure they are of their right to maintain title to the stolen property, obtained in “good faith”, mind you.

What does peace really entail when negotiations become protracted, drawn out in order to ensure the return of these looted cultural assets to source nations? Peace subsumes lengthy exchanges, endless mediations provided by international organizations, specially designated committees and individuals to present the arguments that will lead to some kind of resolution. Is it worth waiting for 20 years? And why does it have to take an average of 20 years to recover stolen cultural objects?

This is where it gets interesting. The spokespersons for aggrieved nations reason differently than the individual claimant victims stripped of their property as a result of acts of genocide, like Holocaust victims and their families. Source nations’ attachment to the cultural, spiritual, national significance of their lost objects carries with it a different sense of responsibility which compels varied strategies in how these objects will be recovered.

A brief tour of Korean cultural and sacred sites was enough to make anyone’s blood boil at the immensity and scope of the crimes committed by the Japanese occupying authority against the culture of millions of Korean citizens for close to half a century. It was as heartbreaking to see what no longer is there than to visit ruined Jewish settlements overgrown by forests and bushes, the bare remnants of thriving communities before the Nazis sowed their genocidal wrath against them.

The same reactions would obviously apply to China which suffered unspeakable violations and depredations for fifteen long and endless years at the hands of the Japanese imperial army and its allies. This is history, it happened. And there is no denying it. The scars are still visible. The discussions of this history continue to be awkward and painful, unresolved, an objective history of these tortured events remains a difficult task to accomplish. And it is in this context that the recovery process of the lost cultural and sacred heritage of these aggrieved nations must take place. Korea and China are but two examples of similar crimes perpetrated in other countries around the world. And each time, the fortunate recipients of these crimes—wittingly or unwittingly—are museums and other cultural institutions residing in Western nations. This is not meant to be an anti-Western diatribe but the facts are as they are. Those countries most willing to absorb cultural and sacred material looted from non-Western nations lie mostly to the West of the Oder River and between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, with the exception of Japan and its absorption of Chinese and Korean cultural material.

How does one achieve peace in this context? It is almost impossible to ask victims to be peaceful. But it is worth noting that the aggrieved parties have maintained, in most instances, the high ethical ground against the apparently selfish, self-righteous and self-aggrandizing motives put forth by the current possessors as justification to retain title to their looted property.

In that regard, calls for peace to resolve cultural heritage disputes echo the “just and fair solutions” developed as of the late 1990s by international diplomats and their allies in the museums community to achieve peaceful, non-litigious compromises between Holocaust victims’ heirs and the current possessors of their looted property, without the latter ceding title to the looted assets. The victims are asked to be reasonable while their painful legacy is explicitly acknowledged. The same appears to hold true in the recovery of looted cultural property illegally removed from source nations. Their painful heritage and history is readily acknowledged, empathy evenly distributed, but title must remain with the current possessor. Conflict arises when the source nation rejects that rationale, complaints are filed and some form of mediation ensues which can last for years, if not decades, which will require intervention by policymakers, politicians and experts from many countries and international bodies. Why waste all of this time and energy when the facts underlying the thefts and illegal removals are clear? Even if they are somewhat muddy and blurry, the obsession that current possessors have with retaining title borders on obsession and pathology. What would happen if current possessors ceded title to a long-sought object embodying far more meaning to the claimant than it could ever have to the current possessor? Without a fight, swiftly and efficiently.  Would the world fall apart? No, the present and future role of museums  as global institutions might be redefined, that's all.

For now, let’s stop here and ponder.

We will return to this discussion in forthcoming dispatches, inspired by the Sixth International Conference of Experts on the Return of Cultural Property (ICECP) which took place in Gyeongju, South Korea, from October 18 to October 20, 2016.

10 October 2016

Deconstructing the Jeu de Paume

by Marc Masurovsky

The process of understanding what exactly unfolded at the Jeu de Paume museum in German-occupied Paris between late 1940 and July 1944 has been in the works for close to a decade.

Jeu de Paume in 1861

The Jeu de Paume museum, emptied of its contents because of the impending German entrance into Paris in 1940, became the  most important processing center for art objects looted by German and French agents from Jewish owners, mainly in the Paris area but also from sites throughout German-occupied France, and to a lesser extent from Belgium and the Netherlands. The collections seized in Belgium and the Netherlands represent but a fraction of what was removed from France and processed through the Jeu de Paume.

For four years the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) staff managed that processing center to which thousands of objects were brought in crates provided by Parisian moving companies.
Typical truck and crate operation at the Louvre

ERR staffers unpacked them, assessed their appearance, condition and importance. Based on their recommendations, these objects were catalogued, inventoried, carded, and either shipped to the Reich or handed over to other German agencies for sale through the Paris art market.

Many post-WWII art restitution cases filed in Europe and in the United States are rooted in the events that transpired at the Jeu de Paume.

What is involved in the deconstruction of the Jeu de Paume?

The bulk of the reconstruction relies almost exclusively on a close examination of primary source documents which attest to the confiscation, transfer, stockpiling, inventorying, cataloguing, carding, and shipment of art objects which were forcibly removed from their Jewish owners.

These documents include, but are not limited to:

-Cards designed and filled out by ERR staffers describing the objects processed at the Jeu de Paume. These cards were also completed in other ERR centers

—in Brussels (Belgium), Fussen/Neuschwanstein (Bavaria, Germany), the Louvre (Paris, France). and Kogl (Austria).
ERR card describing a Rothschild item

-Inventories were produced by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) art specialists in Belgium, France, Germany, and Austria;

-the typewritten version of the handwritten notebooks compiled at great risk by Rose Valland, curator at the Jeu de Paume whose hierarchy asked her in effect to spy for them and document the hemorrhaging of “French cultural treasures” from their Jewish owners to various sites in Germany and Austria;

-restitution claims filed by surviving victims whose property was plundered by German agents between 1940 and 1944;

-wartime and postwar correspondence regarding the thefts authored by victims, perpetrators and witnesses;

-reports compiled by Allied intelligence agencies documenting acts of cultural plunder, including investigations into the actions of specific officials like Hermann Goering, Bruno Lohse, Robert Scholz;

-French police reports detailing their raids on Jewish-owned businesses and residences in close cooperation with German agents;

-records of French anti-Jewish agencies (Commissariat Général aux Questions Juives) responsible (and competing against the ERR) for confiscating Jewish-owned property and facilitating the Aryanization of their businesses.

The ERR staff photographed a number of the confiscated objects. Not all of the objects carded and inventoried were photographed. These photographs are scattered about in various archives throughout Europe—Belgium, France, and Germany. Our task is to reunite them with the corresponding datasets. Their quality varies significantly based on the circumstances under which the photos were taken.

One set of photographs was taken rather crudely in 1940 and 1941. 
Marais aux songes, Max Ernst
 The objects were placed on an easel, a handwritten label identified the alphanumeric code assigned to the object by the ERR, and the object was photographed together with the easel. In other words, the first photographs were produced amateurishly and did not reflect a coordinated policy of treatment of the confiscated objects. Once the Jeu de Paume operation was rationalized and structured under the guidance of Bruno Lohse and other art specialists of the ERR, the photographs took on a more professional quality, often printed on high-end photographic paper.

The official tally reported by French and Germany officials of the number of objects processed at the Jeu de Paume is slightly above 21000. This figure, which I rounded off, has been oft-repeated since 1945 and comes from the official records of the ERR itself and was confirmed by Rose Valland and other French officials after 1945.

The deconstruction of the Jeu de Paume has managed to challenge that official figure upwards and, by so doing, to clarify its meaning.

The 21000 or so objects that were “carded” by the ERR staff in its various depots throughout Europewere objects that the staff considered more from an esthetic viewpoint than an ideological viewpoint. After all, if Nazi ideology had dominated the judgment of the ERR staff, thousands of objects would not have been inventoried or carded because of their “unworthiness” and, therefore, the official figure would have been much lower.

The number itself is low and does not reflect accurately the true extent of the thefts of Jewish-owned cultural assets and the proportion of those assets which entered and left the Jeu de Paume.

Of note are the crates which contained confiscated items. The crates are the most important forensic measure of the actual number of objects which entered the Jeu de Paume from late 1940 to late July 1944. Crates were often assembled in the places of confiscation by the Parisian movers, they contained the fruits of the plunder. They were transported as such in trucks supplied by Parisian moving and storage companies to the Louvre and Jeu de Paume.

Their contents are not always provided in the available documentation. Hence, the Jeu de Paume database can only list the crates, the time at which they entered the Jeu de Paume and exited therefrom.

As of now, there are more than 33,000 datasets in the ERR database, each containing information on at least one object. Several thousand datasets pertain exclusively to crates and their contents, exclusive of the individual objects listed in the database. In other words, these crates contained objects that the ERR did not bother to inventory and/or card for reasons that are not yet clear.

The close examination of Rose Valland’s notes on the contents of crates passing through the Jeu de Paume is the closest that we will ever get to grasping the full extent of the Jeu de Paume operation, the number of collections that were processed there, and the fate of the objects contained therein both during and after WWII.

Crate inventory (partial)
In order of magnitude, the cards, when tabulated,  bring the total number of objects at the Jeu de Paume close to 21000. The inventories of the various collections processed at the Jeu de Paume provide a more accurate but not complete snapshot of the number of objects confiscated from individual Jewish owners. The total number of objects listed in the inventories brings us closer to 30,000 objects. If we add the crates with objects not tabulated in the cards or the inventories, the total number of objects could far exceed 40,000. And finally, the inventories of losses submitted by victims of Nazi and Vichy-sponsored plunder, when confronted with the German inventories, more often than not, contain far more objects than the German inventories. Hence, if we factor in the objects listed on victim inventories which were not carded or inventoried or listed in the description of crate contents, we must ask: where did those objects go since the apartments, mansions, estates, galleries and other sites containing those objects were virtually gutted of all their contents.

Once we reach the end of this exercise, we will be able to provide a more accurate picture of the scope and detail of the cultural plunder of Jewish victims of Nazi occupation and Vichy rule in France.

The process is long and painstaking, but it fulfills a vital mission: to understand the crime of cultural plunder, to document the confiscations, understand the path taken by the various objects during and after the war, and to paint a more complex picture of Nazi cultural policy in occupied territories, the impact of that policy on the art market, and the postwar fate of the objects removed by force from their owners’ possession.

This project is currently funded by the New York-based Conference of Jewish Material Claims against Germany (better known as the Claims Conference) as a joint project with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.

The information on the Jeu de Paume can be found at www.errproject.org.

09 October 2016

Prisoners of war

by Marc Masurovsky

In late January 2014, Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, declared that art objects stolen from Jews “are the last prisoners of WWII”. He asked that they be returned to their rightful owners.  Two years later, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee in June 2016 in support of the so-called HEAR Act, S.2763, Ronald Lauder emphasized, rightly or wrongly, that this proposed bill would help return looted works of art, “the final prisoners of World War II,” to their rightful owners.

This is not the first time that we’ve heard art objects being compared to prisoners of war. The analogy, wittingly or not, produces a misconception as to the nature of the thefts of art objects from Jews and distorts the chronology of events surrounding cultural plunder at the hands of the Nazis between 1933 and 1945. It is a recent notion which may have its roots in the “Spoils of War” conference organized by Elizabeth Simpson in 1995 in collaboration with the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative arts.”

The “Spoils of War” conference came on the heels of disclosures that important works of art thought to be missing at the end of WWII had resurfaced in the former Soviet Union. The trove which a shocked world discovered was described by some as the "last prisoners of World War II," citing Karl E. Meyer’s Editorial Notebook: Russia's Hidden Attic; Returning the Spoils of World WarII, (N.Y. TIMES, Feb. 1, 1995, p. A20). Meyer, a journalist for the New York Times, was referring to important French Impressionist paintings that had been deemed lost in the wreckage of WWII only to reappear in an exhibit at the Hermitage. In an unforgettable display of nationalistic and cultural arrogance, Soviet authorities flaunted their prized “takings”, the result of massive sweeps of works and objects of art by so-called Trophy Brigades operating in areas “liberated” by the Red Army in the months leading up to the end of WWII. The Soviets viewed these “treasures” as “reparations” for the staggering losses in lives, equipment, cultural objects and infrastructure that they had suffered at the hands of Nazis and their collaborators. [Cited by Seth A. Stuhl, Spoils of War? A Solution to the Hermitage Trove Debate , 18 J. Int'l L. 409 (2014).

Since 1995, the expression has been re-appropriated time and time again mostly in the form of catchy titles as a mis-characterization of the full dimension and scope of cultural plunder during the Nazi era (1933-1945). Some of the many authors, mostly legal experts, who used the expression:

1997: Margaret M. Mastroberardino, The Last Prisoners of World War II, 9 Pace Int'l L. Rev. 315 (1997)

2002 Emily J. Henson, The Last Prisoners of War: Returning World War II Art to Its Rightful Owners— Can Moral Obligations Be Translated into Legal Duties?, 51 DEPAUL L. REV. 1103, 1105

2004, Geri J. Yonover, NATIONAL PERSPECTIVE: The "Last Prisoners of War" 1: Unrestituted Nazi-Looted Art Fall, 2004 6 J.L. & Soc. Challenges 81

2006 Patricia Kennedy Grimsted, "A Silesian Crossroads for Europe’s Displaced Books: Compensation or Prisoners of War?"  

A world-renown authority on Nazi looting of archives, libraries and books, Dr. Patricia Kennedy Grimsted has often referred to looted books and archives as “prisoners of WWII, held captive by recipient nations as “compensation” or “reparations.”

2010, Jessica Grimes, "Forgotten Prisoners of War: Returning Nazi-Looted Art by Relaxing the National Stolen Property Act ," Roger Williams University Law Review: Vol. 15: Iss. 2, Article 4.

2011, Maria Liberatrice Vicentini, manager of the Nucleo Conservazione Archivio Siviero, suggested that unrestituted works of art should be viewed as “prisoners of war.”

2014, Jessica Schubert, "Prisoners of War: Nazi-Era Looted Art and the Need for Reform in the United States," Touro Law Review: Vol. 30: No. 3, Article 10.

Although these “prisoners of WWII” are universally associated with the former Soviet Union, one can easily argue that they exist in most countries involved in the Second World War, which received untold numbers of cultural items with no provenance that they simply “hung on to”. They rationalized their presence in State collections and warehouses in the same manner as Soviet officials did and their successors in the newly independent nations forged out of the former Soviet Socialist Republics—Russia, Ukraine, Belarus—and their close neighbors in the rest of Eastern Europe. Proof being in the pudding, however, in the absence of coherent, systematic, inventories and audits of such holdings in the aforementioned nations, we can only continue to speculate wildly about the true numbers of these “prisoners.”


Let’s give credit where credit is due. The late Elan Steinberg was a major force behind the WJC’s many advocacy campaigns of the 1990s In 1998, he called unrestituted looted art "the last prisoners of war."  In November 1998, the WJC reiterated its assertion that looted paintings by Matisse, Chagall and Fernand Léger residing in French museum collections as “orphans” waiting to be returned to “loving parents” were in fact “the last prisoners of war” and they should be “freed.” .

Unless anyone protests, we will award to Elan Steinberg paternity for the expression, which Ron Lauder must have adopted since then. Still, the expression is laden with misconceptions.

Prisoners of war are people, and like with “orphaned” works, we tend to give human shape to objects and assign them sentient qualities which allows us to compare with them with individuals who have been captured in combat or in a battle zone and subjected to forced internment, confinement, and imprisonment by a hostile force. A prisoner of war is usually a member of the military or an agency affiliated with the one of the branches of a country’s armed forces and taken into custody by the “enemy.”

Prisoners of war are usually released at the end of the conflict that provoked their capture. They can also be exchanged for enemy prisoners. In principle, they have rights covered by international agreements, like the Geneva Convention.

Not to be flip, but can all of the aforementioned be applied to cultural objects being held “against their will” by a country which has no designated right to hold them and whose responsibility, at least its ethical or moral responsibility, is to return them to their rightful owners?

Furthermore, a prisoner of war has to be captured during a period of active military conflict. The looting of art objects under Nazi rule began in 1933, six years before the eruption of military conflict on the European continent. Theoretically, the expression “prisoner of war” cannot apply to any art object which was misappropriated, confiscated, plundered or otherwise stolen from its rightful owner prior to the outbreak of war, in other words, during the six-year period of 1933-1939.

Mountain out of a mole hill? Historical accuracy is important and the use of rhetoric to score political points is so widespread as to constitute an epidemic of sorts and therefore cannot be controlled by conventional methods. Only through education and awareness raising can the record be corrected. Art objects, once again, are not people and do not share their characteristics. They have no will of their own. They might symbolize events that extend far beyond their intended purpose as a result of their twisted or disrupted ownership histories. But they cannot—and should not-- be compared to people held against their will behind bars or barbed wire. If people insist on analogizing unrestituted art objects with “prisoners of war”, then it would be more useful to compare them to US soldiers listed as “MIA-Missing in Action” whose return has been elusive since the end of the Vietnam War.

Where does that get us? Nowhere.