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The Question of Ownership of Art

The beauty and history associated with arts of work have in the recent past been tainted by storms of allegations of illegal ownership. Such claims have dented the reputations of both museum owners and private art collectors. Even more disturbing have been questions on how representative certain works of art are to the communities in which they are displayed. Where evidence has been adduced to confirm that works of art are in illegal hands, the question raised has been whether the party holding the piece of art should keep holding it or simply return it to the heirs of the original owner. The rules of natural justice and the ruinous potential of dealing in stolen art make it imperative that stolen works of art be returned to their owners.

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The critical question on who owns works of art is explored by Jane Kramer in the book Whose Art is it? In this book, the author tells the story of the controversy that developed after the erection of statues that were supposed to be representative of the communities in the Bronx area of New York City. Cambor (75) notes that the creator of the statues, a white man, ended up offending the African-American and Latino communities because they viewed the created statues as reinforcing stereotypes. While the artist, John Ahearn, meant to capture the history of the Bronx through art, failure to understand what the represented communities considered sensitive led to the controversy that eventually made the statues be removed. Some details on the offending statutes should shed further light on the controversy. Ahearn created three bronze statues that were supposed to be representative of the community in the Bronx. The three characters were

“a Hispanic man and his pit bull, a shirtless African-American man with his boom box and basketball, and an African-American girl on roller skates–whom he felt embodied the ‘South Bronx attitude’ that he had come to admire after living in the neighborhood (Cambor 75)

Complaints about Ahearn’s statues mainly dwelt on the fact that the images were not representative of the communities and that they only reinforced long-held stereotypes. The complaints took a racial tone since Ahearn was developing statues for people of races different from his. Apart from allegations of stereotyping, Cambor (75) further notes that images such as that of the African-American girl were not in any way depicting the desired empowerment of members of this minority group. This was enough to cause jitters and most probably led to the uproar over the statues.

Kramer’s book explores the place of art in people’s culture. Since America is a multi-cultural society, the author shows the difficulty that is experienced in using art to depict this society in a truly representative manner. More specifically, Kramer shows that nobody can use art to speak for other people. While the statues were found offensive by the Hispanics and the African-Americans, it is possible that the very same statues would not have been found offensive if they were created by members of these communities. In such a situation, the offended communities would feel like real owners of the art and would have no reason to complain – it would be impossible for an individual to create a stereotype of one’s themself.

The uproar over the statues in the Bronx is representative of the dilemma that faces creators and collectors of art. While art in its various forms has different meanings for different people, it can be used to tell the history and can be priceless and irreplaceable. Lofty as it might be, art also has the potential to cause confusion and great controversy. Nothing illustrates this better than the controversies that have arisen over works of art that were stolen during the Nazi era. Works of art that were lost by Jewish victims of the Holocaust found their way to various parts of the world, including the US. The debate over the treatment of these works of art has raged on for quite a while and the main question has been what needs to be done with the recovered works. While the obvious answer would be that the art should be handed over to the heirs of the original owner, Korte (59) shows that the matter is not as easy as it sounds. For one, the heirs can’t know with any precision what art their grandparents collected. The problem is compounded by the fact that in most situations there will be more than one heir – in such a situation, Korte (59) wonders how a decision would be made on the heir to be given the recovered art. Add to this the fact that works of art appreciation in ways that would make recovered art unaffordable to existing heirs.

Perhaps the real problem with handling recovered art is the cultural and historical significance of the works of art. This presents a real problem on how recovered art should be treated because as Korte (59) observes, collectors of art “were not just decorating their homes”. The art that they collected is representative of the history and culture of the communities they lived in. For this reason, the art has special significance not just to the families from which it was stolen, but also to the entire society. While the victims of art theft by the Nazis will mainly be Jewish, it is important to note that what they collected was representative of European cultural life and history during the 18th and 19th centuries (Korte 59).

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The works of art then cease to be pieces for the gratification of an individual or a family and become instruments of universal significance. Korte (59) notes an additional issue that complicates the issue of how to treat recovered art. While arguing that the only fair way to deal with stolen art is restitution, Korte (59) believes that such art could be of great educational value. The art could help in identifying not just the collector but, even more significantly, the creator. From the art, society would be able to debate the motives of the collectors and their relationships with the artists. Recovery also helps in giving credit where it is due. Through restitution, the world will be able to identify specific artists and recognize them for their genius. Korte (59) gives the example of artists who have only been identified through restitution efforts. Artists such as Ismar Littman and Max Silberberg were unknown for a long time and their creative genius was therefore not appreciated (Korte 59).

That dealing with recovered art will continue to trouble the world for a long time is further shown by Reyhan (955). One of the issues that make art-related troubles inevitable is the high prices that work of art fetch. Since works of art fetch such astronomical prices, they will forever be targets for thieves. Reyhan (955) further notes the complications associated with dealing with stolen art by observing that no country in the world has specific laws for dealing with art-related issues – that the laws that govern other transactions are the very same ones that deal with art theft issues. This is unfortunate because, by its very nature, art would seem to require specific laws to govern it. This is because most other commodities, such as cars, computers, and even real estate, are all registered so that it is possible to identify the owner of the title. For art, there are no procedures in place for registering so that it is impossible to identify the owner. As happened with stolen art during the Nazi era, art also has a way of crossing boundaries with ease.

This further complicates matters. Since different nations have different laws governing commercial transactions, the issue of ownership will get much more complicated where the work of art in question involves people in different countries. Reyhan (955) gives the example of people who buy stolen art without knowing that they are handling stolen goods. Acting out of good faith, many people have ended up with works of art that were actually stolen and only discover later, when litigation begins, that the seller was not the true owner of the work of art. In situations like that, legal complications can arise in determining whether the work of art will be given to the owner or to the buyer who, acting out of good faith, innocently purchased a stolen item. Where the transaction is international, it becomes even more complicated owing to differing laws between countries. Reyhan (955) shows the extent of the problem by observing that most countries will determine ownership in such situations by giving ownership to the individual who furthers the nation’s interests.

Despite the myriad problems that art ownership presents, recent developments show that a certain form of order can be created in the world of antiquities. The guidelines issued by the US Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) to restrict the purchase of antiquities of uncertain origin are likely to bring order in what has been a chaotic market. In principle, the guidelines direct museums to limit “their acquisitions of antiquities to works that have left their ‘country of probable modern discovery before 1970 (Eakin). The year 1970 was chosen as a symbolic way of embracing a convention by UNESCO in the same year which tried to eliminate the stealing of cultural material between nations. One of the reasons that make the guidelines by the AAMD likely to succeed is that it will no longer be possible for art thieves to sell their wares to US museums.

This deterrent measure is itself a great boost for the war against antique thieves but Eakin makes note of another major development that should discourage theft of antiques. While Reyhan (955) feels that the international nature of art collection makes the determination of ownership almost impossible, Eakin reports a landmark ruling that shows the war can be won. This is the 2003 conviction, in America, of “Frederick Schultz, former president of the National Association of Dealers in Ancient, Oriental and Primitive Art, for dealing in stolen art” (Eakin). What is most encouraging about this conviction is that it was made using Egyptian law. While such convictions should further discourage trade in stolen art, Eakin further notes that modern museums are more concerned about their reputations than their predecessors. The old habit of collecting art with reckless abandon with little regard for its origin is now frowned upon by modern museums. In compliance with AAMD guidelines museums are also required to conduct adequate research to comply with the 1970 cut-off date (Stoilas).

The fact that art has immense historical and cultural significance decides on what to do with recovered art quite complicated. When art is displayed in museums, it is accessible to the public and is, therefore, more beneficial for the entire community than when it is held in private homes. However, theft of art, which was mainly encouraged by the liberal buying habits of museums, has potential for immense troubles, including the war between nations. This fact alone should discourage the reckless acquisition of works of art whose origin is unknown or suspect. In any case, most privately-held art makes end up in museums after a while, and the time that the public might have to wait to access such art is a reasonable price pay compared to the devastating possibilities that theft of art poses.

Works cited

Cambor, Kate. “Recasting the Stones”. The American Prospect 0.43 (2002): 75.

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Eakin, Hugh. “Who Should Own the World’s Antiquities?” The New York Review of Books 56.8 (2009). Web.

Korte, Willi. “Nazi-Looted Art: The Case of the Missing Perspective”. A Quartely Journal of Jewish Life and Thought 55.3-4 (2008): 59.

Reyhan, Patricia Youngblood. “A Chaotic Palette: Conflict of Laws in Litigation between Original Owners and Good-Faith Purchasers of Stolen Art”. Duke Law Journal 50.4 (2001): 955.

Stoilas, Helen. “New Guidelines for US Museums Acquiring Antiquities”. The Art Newspaper. 2008: 193. Web.

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