Hunting Art Thieves Across Borders and Time

Depending on what object you’re talking about, an “art thief” could be a looter—or a national government.
Ekkeheart Gurlitt talks to the press about the 1,400 artworks seized from the Munich apartment of his cousin Cornelius Gurlitt. (Albert Gea/Reuters)

Does a work of art have a soul? This isn’t the type of question you’d expect from the politics-dominated Washington Ideas Forum. But on Wednesday, the conversation took a metaphysical turn as Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott talked with art historian James Cuno about how transnational politics have complicated the question of ownership in the art world.

The trouble starts with antiquities. Countries with a rich history of ancient art and culture like Italy, Greece, and Egypt often makes claims on collections housed in museums around the world, claiming that they should own the art created in their territories thousands of years ago. Often, museums acquire these pieces by mistake—even if they research the provenance of a piece, they may not have all the information about who really owns it. But whether or not the pieces were taken out of malice, countries often want them back.

“Governments in some cases want to retain within their jurisdictions these things because of a national ideology associated with them,” Cuno explained. “The claim made on these objects is that they share a soul with the people of the region. I think the question of whether an object, a work of art, a sculpture has a soul is a question better answered by philosophers than by politicians.”

The question of art ownership is particularly complicated in Germany, where the government is still sorting out Nazi art thefts nearly 70 years after the fall of the Third Reich. Recently, a trove of art was found in an apartment in Munich, likely having languished there for decades. Many suspect that the art was acquired during the Nazi regime, and now the government, police officials, and historians are trying to answer the question: Who has a right to this art?

“The Nazis removed art from individuals as well as from state museums,” Cuno explained. “Among these many works of art, we don’t even know what comprises these objects—we don’t know if they’re authentic, we don’t know if they’re in good condition.”

Germany has not been forthcoming with this information. “The big question is, why did we learn about it this way?” Cuno asked. “The German government has been working on provenance questions for at least a year, but they didn’t do it in a transparent way.”

When experts suspect that an art collection has dubious origins, things are complicated even further, because no one wants to buy a stolen collection of art. In some ways, Cuno said, this incentivizes a culture of looting, presumably because art thieves are more easily able to sell art on the black market than legitimate dealers are. But people also become art thieves for other reasons.

“Looters don’t wake up one day and decide between being a lawyer and a looter,” Cuno said. “These are people with very few choices—these are people with failed states and failed economies who are desperate. They’re willing to risk their lives. To prevent looting is going to require a much larger set of activities: restore stable governments, the economy, stop warfare, stop sectarian violence.”

So, it seems, even art theft has been affected by globalization: Porous borders, changing regimes, and regional inequality make it hard to tell who owns—and who has stolen—any work of art.

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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