Sir Norman Rosenthal, former Exhibitions Secretary at the Royal Academy, has published his thoughts on restitution in The Time Has Come For a Statute of Limitations at the Art Newspaper. He argues that restitution should not be made to the descendents of art and cultural property owners. His reasons are (1) to do so makes the rich richer, (2) the art market’s encouragement of restitution is false, as they are just trying to drum up business, and (3) if cultural objects migrate over time into the public sphere, then “that’s the way it is.”
Rosenthal uses his Jewishness as a shield of immunity because, as he explains, he had relatives that died in Nazi concentration camps. Such an explanation immediately following a controversial thesis (that Nazi looted art should not be returned) functions as a shield against the attacks of those more sensitive to the concerns of descendants of Holocaust survivors.
I was disappointed that the argument was not better developed. It consists more of restating the thesis in various ways than supporting it. Not that I expect every editorial to be a scholarly work, but if you are going to take such a controversial position, it’d be nice if you have a better justification than “that’s just the way it is.” (Is it? Because, as of this point, I don’t think so.)
The last paragraph sums up the editorial:
There should now surely be a statute of limitations on this kind of restitution. If we were still in 1950 and the people who owned the Manet or the Monet were still alive, then it would surely be correct to give these paintings back, but not now and not to grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The world should let go of the past and live in the present. Of course, the best of the past needs to be looked after, but we should not be overly obsessive about the worst of the past—it is not useful either to individuals or society as a whole. Each person should invent him or herself creatively in the present, and not on the back of the lost wealth of ancestors.
Nice thought as far as a self development blog would go, but it doesn’t do much for me in terms of an argument on the ethics of cultural property.
Derek Fincham has also commented on the Rosenthal piece, Limiting Art and Antiquities Restitution? at the Illicit Cultural Property Weblog.
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