The Strange and Amazing Thoughts of Sir Norman Rosenthal on Ending Restitution of Nazi Looted Art

Modern Ghana 20 April 2009
By Dr Kwame Opuku

Norman Rosenthal suggested sometime ago that there should be an end to claims for restitution of Nazi-Looted art and was rightly criticised by so many others. (See )  Now he has given an interview in Der Spiegel in which he restates his case.  His reasoning is so strange that one can hardly believe any one would argue as he does. A few quotations from the interview should convince the reader that, whatever one may think of restitution of art in general and restitution of Nazi-Looted art in particular, such interviews do not really help anyone:

SPIEGEL: Sir Norman, why are you calling for an end to the return of looted art and, as a result, an end to restitution?

Rosenthal: You cannot make up for anything by returning a small amount of art, and one should not want to create this impression.

Has anybody ever suggested that by returning Nazi-looted art or any looted art one is making up for past offences? Rosenthal does not seem to share the view that if my property or the property of my parents is stolen, this should be returned to the family. True, restitution does not make up for the greater violations of human rights but should the offenders be rewarded by being allowed to keep what they have unlawfully taken away? Should the law confirm the binding nature of illegal acts by not attempting any recovery? Somebody should explain to Sir Norman that restitution of Nazi-looted art is not intended as compensation for atrocities suffered under the evil Nazi system. The two are related but are not the same. Is this too fine a distinction?

Rosenthal: Yes. I am interested in the past. Everyone should come to grips with it, but I live in today's world. I don't want to profit from the fate of my parents, and I believe that my children will feel the same way. Every generation must reinvent itself. What counts is the present. We must all live in the present.

Rosenthal seems to think that by recovering the artwork stolen from your parents, you are profiting from the fate of your parents, as he puts it. But should those who illegally stole from your parents profit from their evil deeds? More than profiting from the fate of relatives, restitution is a recognition and condemnation of the wrongful act of forcibly taking away the property of others. It is society's condemnation of the use of force and the affirmation of human rights. It is not only the successors to Nazi victims who are interested in restitution but society as a whole that stands to profit from banning illegal seizures of the property on the grounds of race, colour, sex or religion. Does Rosenthal believe in human rights at all?

Sir Norman is amazing. Every generation must reinvent itself. Does this include abandoning all that previous generations have produced? Is that what the art historian is suggesting? Should we forget the artworks of previous generations and their fate?

We must all live in the present. The claimants of Nazi-looted art are not living in the past as Sir Norman and others may wish to suggest. These claimants are demanding the return of Nazi-looted artworks that are on display in supposedly respectable museums and galleries of Europe and America. They are not dealing with past matters but with present violations of their rights that have their causes in the past brutal Nazi regime. It is rather those who hang onto past injustices who are living in the past as if there had not been any development in social and legal values since the days of Nazi confiscations. They ignore the general moral and legal condemnations of Nazi atrocities by affirming, directly or indirectly, the legality of transactions based on violations of the rights of others.

SPIEGEL: Everyone has his own way of dealing with the past. There are those who would be proud of what their ancestors collected and would like to have it back. They are attached to family photos, and perhaps even the art their parents owned.

Rosenthal: That may be so, but it doesn't apply to me. I have no right to what my parents and grandparents achieved. And should a few people truly benefit from the fact that restitution is possible in their cases, while others, who endured equally terrible ordeals, receive nothing? That's unfair.

The law says you are entitled to what your parents have achieved but Sir. Norman denies this. Is he going to change the basic principles of laws of succession in all legal systems? Sir Norman should not compare the restitution of looted art to situations where there has not been any looted art and therefore no restitution, even if the grand parents of a whole generation suffered Nazi atrocities. If Rosenthal's logic were accepted, there would never be restitution because there will always be some persons who also suffered under dictatorial regimes but had no property that was confiscated.

SPIEGEL: What is more reprehensible than the fact that museums own paintings to which they are not entitled?

Rosenthal: It's only a shame when works suddenly disappear from the public and from view.

If Sir Norman really does not see that it is wrong for museums as well as for anyone to keep artworks that have been wrongfully sized from others, there is probably not much we can add to this. He seems to think that only Germans are against his strange ideas. He should know that the right to keep one's artworks belongs to all of us and is not a matter for only a few persons, however important they may be, to determine when there should be an end to restitution.

It is a rather sad commentary on our world that after some sixty five years since the end of the Nazi regime one should have to try to persuade a former chief curator of the Royal Academy of Arts, London that Nazi looted art should be returned to the rightful successors. The German Government has once again rejected the propositions of Norman Rosenthal.   (See article on
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