So, the Getty are sending more works back to Italy. The latest is a fresco fragment, made in (approx) the first century BC. It had come to the museum as a gift in 1996, from New York collectors Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman. The Getty have sent 39 antiquities back since 2007, and I imagine there are more to come. The issue of repatriating artworks is so complex that it requires a whole sack of mixed metaphors to describe it: knotty, thorny, tangled web, and so on. The ‘great’ collections of the world would be destroyed if their holdings (Egyptian, Etruscan, Greek, Roman, Chinese, Persian…) were to be sent home, and at the same time, many of the works they hold would have been destroyed had they not been held in these collections in the interim. Now the argument that the Elgin Marbles / Parthenon Frieze is safer in the UK no longer stands up, but could a similar argument be made for works from the museums of Baghdad?
Nazi-looted art is another difficult subject. In some cases the issue is cut-and-dried – stolen works should be returned. But in the instance of dealers who sold work cheaply so they could raise the cash to escape, should those works be returned to their heirs? And the case of Maria Altmann and Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer, it’s even trickier. Adele Bloch Bauer herself indicated in her will that her collection of Klimts should be left to the Austrian people. During Nazi occupation, the paintings were confiscated from her widowed husband, who later left his estate to his nephew and nieces, including Maria Altmann. So who owns the Klimts? After a long court battle, the works were given to Altmann, who then sold them (the Adele Bloch Bauer portrait going to Ronald Lauder for his Neue Gallery, which needed its own ‘Mona Lisa’ for PR purposes, for a reputed $135million). Altmann went on to sell the remainder at Christies, and was quoted (in the Irish Times 10 November 2006, among others) as telling reporters beforehand “that she hoped at least some of the works would end up on museum walls or other public display." The fact that the paintings had already been on public display, in context, at the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna, wasn’t really a feature of any new reports of the case and its aftermath at the time.
The advantage of museums with international collections is obvious – when properly presented, a wealth of information about world culture is available for comparative study under one roof. The heritage of the world: open to schoolchildren and students in different cities. A more facile argument would also suggest that each individual country wouldn’t actually have room for all their heritage, were it to be returned. On the other hand, colonial plunder, wholesale looting of antiquities, and enforced selling of works to populate museums; those inheritors and propagators of the imperialist project, is not right either. As more and more cases are being fought in courts of law, the problem is that the balanced and measured approach, where each instance is judged on its cultural and possibly more relativist merits is coming second to principles of precedent and the letter of the law.
But – if I could have just one work back – and I don’t think I would win the case, no matter how much money was at my disposal to fight it in the international law courts of the world – it would be to get back a piece I saw one rainy afternoon in Miami. Harry Clarke’s Geneva Window was commissioned by the first Free State Government of W T Cosgrave as Ireland’s gift to the International Labour Organisation building in Geneva. But when Cosgrave’s government saw the stained-glass panels, depicting drunken poets and erotic shenanigans in hedgerows, they decided it was not a representation of Ireland they wanted at large in the world. So it is now to be found, out of context, beautiful but somewhat meaningless, in the Wolfsonian Foundation in Miami. Not looted, not plundered, not appropriated, but in the wrong place, and for all the wrong reasons. I wish it could come home.