Who Owns Art?
The recovery of a veritable treasure trove of art, confiscated by the Nazis and thought lost for seventy years, raises profound moral, legal and philosophical questions about the ownership of works of art, and the rights and responsibilities of such ownership.
Munich police have recently announced that, in Spring 2011, during a raid on the flat of one Rolf Nikolaus Cornelius Gurlitt for suspected tax evasion, they discovered a hoard of modernist art confiscated by the Nazis during World War 2 This collection has been estimated at a value of up to €1bn. Since the discovery the police have begun the mammoth task of not just cataloguing and evaluating the lost works – which include pieces by Picasso, Matisse and Munch – but also of ascertaining whom the rightful owners of these pieces are.
Simply in legal terms the appropriate course of action is not crystal clear. International law states only that there is a “moral obligation” to return works of looted art to their original owners. However, this is non binding, primarily because such works may have subsequently been sold on legitimately, and the morality of removing ownership of an artwork from one person who may have bought it completely legitimately in order to return it to another, previous, legitimate owner is somewhat fuzzy.
In moral and philosophical terms the issues are even more vexed. Certainly someone who has been stolen from, under normal circumstances, deserves to have their property returned if the opportunity becomes available. However, I am less certain that the same applies to the descendants of the owners, especially when the property was stolen under such circumstances. Many people lost everything under Nazi rule and during the second world war, and most of them did not start out wealthy enough to own expensive artworks. These were crimes committed – essentially – in the pre-modern era, and the theft of art (or the destruction of art which occurred during Allied bombing raids on Germany) pales, as a criminal act, in comparison with the horrors visited on many people during that period. Very few people were justly recompensed for their suffering in that time. If our goal is to right the injustices of that period I wouldn't start with stolen paintings.
Against the original owners' right to recompense must be weighed the public interest. Many of the lost works which have been discovered are lost masterpieces by some of the most important artists of the 19th and 20th centuries. These haven't been seen for at least 70 years. Is it really right that these paintings should be returned to private collectors? Doesn't everyone have the right to see these (perhaps with the descendants of the original owners paid a compensatory sum by museums or other public institutions which would display the works)?
Paintings and sculptures are unique as art forms in that they are permanent yet non reproducible. Some art is ephemeral, like a play or live music performance. Reproducible art – books, sound recordings, audiovisual mediums – have a limited copyright (usually between 50-70 years from publication or from an artist's death, depending on country) before they enter the public domain, and I would suggest that a similar rule should be introduced for paintings and sculptures. The reason for copyright is to make sure that artists and companies are properly remunerated for their work and investment. Copyright does not exist as a permanent cash cow to be exploited for generations to come. It recognises that art is part of our history and our culture and that all of society has a right to access it, once proper payment has been made to its creator.
The point of art is to provoke, to inspire. To explore what it means to be human. Art is how we have a discussion about who we are, as individuals and as a species and a society. It exists to be studied, and examined, and discussed. Though many artists may want to create unique experiences for each individual member of their audience, there are very few artists who would only want an audience of one. That to me is the saddest part of this story.
Imagine being Cornelius Gurlitt. Living in a flat piled high with great works of art, year after year, hiding them from the world. Completely unable to show anyone or to discuss with anyone the beauty and brilliance of these pieces. The art itself, stacked in piles, surrounded by 20 year old tins of beans, was apparently only seen by only one man in 55 years. What is the point of beauty that you can't share? I don't understand why anyone would want that. I'd want to show the world and to hell with the money.
This week the world regained a bit of its heritage that was thought lost forever. I hope we get to see it.
Written by Andy Croucher