Lost and Found: How Should We Deal with Stolen Post-War Art?

BBC news reported that, during a routine tax inspection,  more than 1400 pieces of artwork lost during World War Two were discovered in the home of Cornelius Gurlitt. On November 17th, BBC reported that Mr. Gurlitt is refusing to voluntarily give up the artwork to the pieces of art. Should Mr. Gurlitt and other owners of such artworks be forced to part with their ‘property’?

During times of conflict, like World War Two, citizens are forced to flee their homes without thought or regard for their possessions. This leaves the doors open to thieves and plunderers, who take these works of art and sell them. When the war ends, the original owners come back and find that their art collections and valuables missing. Struggling to stay afloat, they are not able to devote much time searching for the lost art pieces. It is only when these issues come to light are the families able to stake claim on their property. However, this claim is not straightforward and is complicated by the time frame, and general confusion of war. While leaving their homes, these families often leave behind any evidence that they ever owned paintings in the wreckage. It is very difficult to prove ownership. Also, many false claimants will come forward, which further complicates the situation. The painting owner is also probably a descendant of the man who originally purchased the merchandise. Having owned it almost his entire life, he too feels a sense of ownership. Thus, we have a rather perplexing situation.

Calling on owners to voluntarily give up works of art that they may have received from underhand methods seems like a good idea. However, many of them, like Mr. Gurlitt, will refuse to give away items with high price tags for free. Even if the more altruistic owners do agree to give away the pieces of art, who will receive them? Often, there are many claimants. If they can easily establish the ownership, it is easy for them to obtain their works back, but in most cases, the evidence is insufficient or unreliable, and they cannot be given the artworks. A solution might be to display it at a public art gallery. However, which Government would be given ownership of the art? The French or the German?

Museum dedicated to ‘lost’ artworks could be created to circumvent this problem. The proceeds could go to funds to help people in conflict regions worldwide. The paintings could be co-owned by several parties and can be enjoyed by everyoneas art should be. Hopefully, a solution to this problem will emerge soon, and a procedure can be established in these cases. Then perhaps irreplaceable pieces of art will not be a casualty in war.

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