Once upon a time...

Plundered Art 19 January 2014

Once upon a time, an American private first class entered Adolf Hitler’s lair in Berchtesgaden, tantamount to taking a stroll through Ali Baba’s cave. He and his commanding officer could not resist and assembled an elaborate, yet simple scheme to misappropriate objects of all kinds, from Hitler’s desk, cabinets, works lying on the floor, against walls and so forth. They sent these items including an engraving by Cranach, to the US via the military postal system—APO. An untold number of objects left the lair in that fashion. Only one was recovered, only because the soldier, who had registered as a graduate student at a New York City college in the late 1940s, had admitted his wayward behavior to his counselor who reported it to the dean who alerted the State Department. Next thing we know, after arduous negotiations, the student ceded the stolen item without revealing the existence of the other items. To this day, he has protected the identity of his commanding officer, fumbling and stuttering when explaining the reasons for his action. This individual became a leading Holocaust scholar and one of the foremost academic opponents of restitution as an ethical concept, as a teachable concept, as a historical phenomenon following acts of genocide and plunder driven by ideological crimes against an entire people, and as a strategy of justice for Holocaust victims and their heirs. This irrational behavior regarding his crime mirrors strangely the comportment of Jewish officials, Holocaust museum directors, Holocaust studies faculty and administrators, curriculum designers and Holocaust educators as they reject a cardinal principle of the Third Reich policy against its Jewish victims, as well as a pillar of antisemitic behavior--the forcible removal of all property belonging to Jews as the first step towards their dehumanization and marginalization as productive members of civil society.

Art world officials have behaved in similar fashion when confronted with the realization that they might have to part with objects in the collections that they steward. They behave much like the former PFC from Berchtesgaden, with an inflated sense of proprietariness, a very kindisch behavior that one might expect more from an outraged, self-righteous child. And yet, the grandstanding indignation of museum officials and curators and dealers and collectors and their attorneys and even art historians and so-called provenance research specialists in those very institutions, all behave as if they are the self-anointed guardians of Kultur.

It’s all very weird.
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