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Posted By: Thomas Au on 3/1/2013
Great art has been coveted throughout history. Explorers, scientists, art collectors, politicians, and entrepreneurs from Western nations have sought out and removed art from the lands of great civilizations, often with the assistance and participation of local people and governments. In the last few decades, “victimized” source countries have begun to demand the return of such art. Meanwhile, museums throughout the world have integrated these pieces of art into their collections, often as the cornerstones of exhibits or collections that draw thousands of patrons every year. Private collectors and art dealers also have established interests in such pieces.

What role does the law play in art repatriation today? Can such individuals and organizations be required to return the artwork if they acquired the pieces through legal means? Does it matter whether what was legal at the time of acquisition would currently be considered legal? The laws of several nations have answers to these questions, usually addressing the issue as they would the rightful possession of any other item of tangible property. But a body of international law has recently emerged addressing these issues, changing previous analysis. Our distinguished panel will address the resulting issues from a variety of perspectives.

This Symposium first examines the pros and cons of repatriation. Cultural artifacts have often been incorporated as the focus of an exhibit in a museum; the possessor of the item, whether a museum, organization, or private dealer, has put resources into the restoration and continued maintenance of the piece. The possessor also often believes the piece was lawfully obtained. For these and other reasons, the possessor may refuse to consent to repatriation. Yet these items represent the cultural history and pride of the countries from which they originated. On that basis, continued possession of these items by museums and others outside the country of origin may be considered unethical or impolitic, if not necessarily unlawful.

The Symposium will then review the UNESCO Convention. The United States was one of the earliest market countries to sign the 1970 UNESCO Convention, but doing so hardly ushered in an immediate new era of reduced looting or increased preservation of sites, monuments or objects. What happened since that Convention was signed, whether it has been an impetus for change in the U.S. and abroad, why there were returns of objects by U.S. museums only in the last years and what are the implications for the future of collecting by U.S. museums will be examined. The Symposium also looks at the role that the Internet has played in repatriation and restitution. This presentation will cover how the Internet is likely to affect art restitution claims, analyzing future legal consequences surrounding museum acquisitions based on lessons learned from the Nazi-looted art arena.

How are museums reacting to repatriation issues? The Association of Art Museum Directors adopted the standard that museums should stop collecting pieces that cannot be traced to a legitimate public or private collection before 1970. This standard allows for significant discretion regarding its application when collecting antiquities, and has caused significant debate among curators and museum directors. The Symposium concludes with an examination of repatriation through the lens of one of Cleveland’s cultural centerpieces, the Cleveland Museum of Art.

-- Sara Kohls, Executive Articles Editor and Symposium Coordinator

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