The Business of Art: Cultural Property in the Modern Age

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Cultural Property and Ownership

A cultural property is a representation of the past. An important part of history, it denotes the artistic and historical value which is associated with an object or property as a representation of culture or a country. Yet, there is no clear-cut and easy to comprehend definition for cultural property. The word “property” is often used as a commercial term to signify value and that of possession. In this sense, cultural property like paintings, artifacts, land, ceremonial burial items, and like items can be owned by individuals, organizations or countries. While objects of cultural value have economic value, their real worth cannot really be measured because they may represent a heritage, a significant part of the history of a country or even the hopes and aspirations of the people.

 

Need for Cultural Property law

Due to their significance in history, culture or national and international interests, there’s considerable value placed on such properties. The economic value of most cultural property is extremely high. How much will the Mona Lisa fetch in the black market? To protect and safeguard properties of intrinsic and non-intrinsic value, cultural property laws have been set up. Several US laws like the National Historic Prevention Act, Historic Sites Act, and The Archaeological and Historic Preservation Act protect the cultural properties and objects of cultural value. Several other international laws and the guidelines given by the UNESCO also dictates and lays down guidelines on the protection and maintenance of cultural properties.

Confiscation and Theft of Art

One of the most significant art thefts of modern times was the one perpetrated by the Nazi forces during Germany’s occupation of Europe and Russia. They not only plundered thousands of pieces of art from various private and public collections but also plundered art and objects of value from the homes of civilians, bringing them back to Germany.

Among the cultural properties targeted by the Nazis during their occupation of Europe were those from France and Holland. In their desire to acquire these art collections, they would often resort to tactics which would include fear, coercion, and torture.

Often, Hitler and his closest aides, specifically Hermann Göring, would collaborate with local art dealers and force the owners of these collections, often wealthy Jews, to sell off their prized possessions at dirt cheap prices. Fearful of their lives as much as the confiscation of their collections of art, the Jews would look to salvage whatever they could out of these sales.

Some of the Germanic countries like Belgium and Holland were occupied by the Germans and their art, like that of the Ghent Altarpiece by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, were particularly singled out by senior party leaders as they preferred that genre of art. The notable art confiscations by the Nazis of these times were the Czartoryski family of Krakow collection containing valuable works of Leonardo Da Vinci, Rembrandt and Raphael, art from the occupation of Russia such as the gilded fountains of the Peterhof Palace, Amber panels from the Catherine Palace, the private art collection of the Rothschilds, and Jacques Goudstikker, a wealthy Jewish businessman and collector from Amsterdam.

France was a case in the point for how systematically the Nazis pillaged hapless Paris and the rest of France in order to fill their art collection. France was a most desirable Nazi target primarily for the volume of art in the country. Hitler had created a dedicated team called the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg or the ERR, whose primary role was to ensure the search and confiscation of any art worthy of taking in France. After confiscating most of the art in various museums and private collections of wealthy Frenchmen and Jews who were already conveniently declared non-citizens and rendered incapable of holding any property in France, the Nazis performed extensive house-to-house searches, taking away whatever possessions they found worthy of taking.

Repatriation of Confiscated and Stolen Arts

Postwar acts of the Allied army comprising of the Americans and the British to recover lost art were difficult as most of the art was obtained by plundering and coercion. Finding the rightful owner created more confusion. In addition, a predicament was the confiscation of art by the Russians. The Russians felt that the Germans plundered many of their art and prized possessions during the Seize at Leningrad and the occupation of Russia. In return, they took the opportunity to make up for their losses. Presently, several of the original collections belonging to wealthy Jewish families are being displayed at the Pushkin Museum and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia.