It is one of the art world’s greatest paradoxes: while the market for cultural treasures becomes more and more globalised, the clamour for those works to be repatriated to their country of origin becomes ever louder. In theory it has never been easier for museums, dealers and collectors to become international players on the art scene; in truth, it is getting more difficult by the day.
The claims for the restitution of works of art that are said to have been plundered from their native land grow apace. The case of the 10th-century Cambodian statue that was put up for auction last year by Sotheby’s, only to be blocked by a last-minute legal bid for repatriation, is only one recent example.
Lawyers last month filed court papers in New York accusing Sotheby’s of knowing that the sculpture “was an important piece of cultural property that had been stolen” from a temple complex when it was put up for auction last March. The auction house is fighting the claim, arguing that Cambodia had never declared ownership of the statue before the auction house sought to sell it on behalf of its Belgian owner, and that no one has been able to prove that the item was stolen.
Such battles are becoming commonplace in the art market. The issue of restitution was once a dry debate that involved some of the world’s great museums as they fought off claims from mainly European counties that had suddenly woken up to the importance of their cultural patrimony. But in a more global climate, there is a growing trend for wanting to reclaim what are said to be national treasures.
Another legal case, against the J. Paul Getty Museum curator Marion True, has acted as a watershed in the restitution debate. True was indicted by an Italian court in 2005 for her part in acquiring art of allegedly illicit Italian provenance for the museum in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Her case was finally dismissed, after much legal wrangling, in 2010.
Yet the publicity surrounding it forced the hands of many museums in the US to begin to give back art works with a doubtful provenance. In a 2010 interview with the New Yorker magazine, True reflected the views of many art world insiders when she said: “My greatest sadness is that the Italians were able to intimidate the entire American art world, and especially museums, without having to produce any evidence at all.”
The restitution debate is based on a philosophical dispute over the role of museums, and on the nature of modern nationhood. While those in favour of restitution argue that works have been plundered and should be returned to the land from which they came, a robust response from the museums community says that the issue is more nuanced than that. A recent book by James Cuno, Who Owns Antiquity?, stakes the claim for the cosmopolitan aspirations of the encyclopedic museums, arguing that the fluid and diverse origin of many art objects resist simple claims for their “repatriation”. Not only do modern populations frequently bear no relation to the ancient objects that they are reclaiming, Cuno argues,but the drive to establish draconian cultural property laws will serve to feed nationalist movements and their excesses.
The sway of geopolitics ensures that the ground is constantly shifting in the restitution debate. With the emergence of China as a superpower, attention is naturally focusing on its intention to repatriate what it sees as its cultural heritage. The most bizarre example of its determination occurred in 2009, with the intended sale by Christie’s of two bronze zodiac heads in the collection of Yves St Laurent, which had been seized by French and British troops from the Imperial Summer Palace in 1860. The heads were sold to an anonymous bidder, only for that figure to reveal himself as the Chinese collector Cai Mingchao, an adviser to China’s National Treasures Fund, who said he had no intention of paying for the heads, and had only made the bid as a “patriotic act”.
Africa too is fast joining the restitution roundabout. Many examples of tribal art held in western museums are not only regarded as unfairly seized from their country of origin, they are also held to have religious or ritualistic significance. The issue of displaying human remains, for example, has become highly contentious in the museum world.
When the mummified head of a Maori warrior was returned to New Zealand from the Museum of Rouen in France in 2009, it was seen as an important turning point in some quarters. Abdoulaye Camara, former president of the Museum of African Art in Dakar, said at the time: “It’s a huge leap forward. This can set into motion the issue of restitution of African cultural property.”
He was quick to illustrate the depth of feeling over what he regarded as an odious practice: “The ordinary mind can hardly fathom how these human remains could have stayed without burial, and far from their homeland.”
The restitution debate is moving fast, adapting to an altered political landscape, and taking on board moral arguments that would have made little sense only half a century ago. The insecurity felt by even the grandest cultural institutions over these developments naturally feeds into the art market. The result has been a polarisation of prices, between works with rock-solid and unproblematic provenance at the high end of the scale, and riskier, “bargain” pieces. Buyers need to beware, more than ever.