Repatriation- Controversy, Ethics and Morals.


 German Archaeologist illegally removing Neolithic Age artefacts in Greece, 1941,  Original from here.

Repatriate or Repatriation;  The process of returning a person or object back to it’s point of origin. (Oxford Dictionary Meaning).

Repatriation is a divisive and hard to deal with issue within the modern museum world. In museums repatriation deals with the return of cultural items to their original country or groups of people they belonged to. This can take the form of cultural objects belonging to Native Americans to art works looted by the Nazi’s in WW2, being returned to their rightful owners.

This issue is divisive as the request for the return of cultural objects jumps through many loop holes, from religious reasons to cultural reasons and the fact that the objects could have been illegally taken in the first place. One of the main groups that call for repatriation of objects are native peoples of America, Canada, Europe and Australasia. In particular, the indigenous population in both America and Canada have made requests to the North American and European museum diaspora.

 ‘Ghost Shirt’ from the Massacre at Wounded Knee in 1891.

One particular item that was requested back by the Lakota Tribe of South Dakota, was the above pictured Ghost Shirt from the Massacre of Wounded Knee in 1891. This shirt was in the collection of Glasgow Museums, after having being bought by the museum from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show when it toured through the U.K. in the 1890’s. It had remained in the collection of Glasgow Museums, until a repatriation call was made for the Ghost Shirt in the late 1990’s.

Cole Morteon writes in the ‘The Independent on Sunday’,  8th November 1998, in the ‘Culture Section’, that the repatriation was tenuous and out drawn process. Moreton quotes the then head of curatorial services at Glasgow Museums, Mark O’Neil talking about the re-patriation of the Ghost Shirt. O’Neil argues that:

There is a justifiable case for saying that part of the object’s history was its arrival in Glasgow, and that the people of this city have some rights to it.’  *

It is justifiable that the history of a particular item is transitory dependent on where it is at any given point of it’s history. However, who truly ‘owns’ an object, as per se? Is it the original owner, or the person who owns it in the present moment? Essentially, if the object has passed through owner’s, all of the previous and future owner’s are legitimate ‘owner’s. They all have a part to play in the object’s history and its continuation as an object of interest.   However, notwithstanding these arguments, in this case, the return of the Ghost Shirt was the right thing for Glasgow Museums to do.  The object was important to the Lakota Tribe’s spiritual history and to the closure of a very painful episode in their past.

With this notion, of repatriation of an essentially illegally looted item brings up thoughts on the looted and confiscated art of World War Two.  Besides, the Napoleonic sacking of collections throughout Europe, the looting of art work by the Nazi’s in WW2 is the largest the world has ever seen. The predominantly Jewish looted art, although many national and regional collections were sacked as well, was taken by force by the Nazi’s and collaborating forces in their occupied territories.

The Nazi’s looted art so that Adolf Hilter, could create his great ‘Fuhrer Museum’ of art (and degenerate art) in his hometown of Branau am Inn, Austria. The Nazi’s looted everything from Raphael to Picasso, Michaelangelo to Cezanne and Van Dyck to Degas. Their looting of art was all consuming and on a barbaric scale.

Unfortunately, before the end of WW2 many paintings and objects were destroyed by the Nazi’s as the allies advanced into Germany. This was done as a retaliation of Germany’s continuous losses throughout 1944 to 1945. This has lead to what is known as ‘The Lost Art of WW2’, with the paintings either being destroyed or ending up in private collections that no one can access to identify.

However, not all wandering art was lost; there has been many important restitutions in the past fifty years. This was due to many foundations including; ‘The Looted Art Commission’ and ‘The Monuments Men Foundation.’ (The Monuments Men was the nickname given to the joint Allied attempt to reconstitute looted art during and after WW2. The foundation continues their efforts).

Real life Monuments Men with various pictures found after the end of WW2.

One of the most important returns of looted art was Gustav Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch, entitled the ‘Gold Portrait.’ (As pictured below). This painting had been donated to the Austrian National Gallery in 1925, after Bloch’s death. Subsequently, in 1938 after the Anschluss with Austria, the Gallery handed it’s collection over to the German Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler.

Fifty years later, the heirs of Adele Bloch hired lawyers to investigate the missing Klimt collection that belonged to the family. The investigation revealed that five of the family’s paintings were in the Austrian National Gallery, including the ‘Gold Portrait.’ After a lengthy legal battle, the paintings, including Adele Bloch’s portrait were given back to the family.

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, or ‘The Gold Painting’, Oil on Canvas, Neue Galerie New York.

The return of the lost portrait above to its rightful owners, was a triumph over the perceived notion that one nation could destroy another’s nations culture by appropriation of that nation’s cultural history. However, one has to argue if the original painting was donated to the Austrian National Gallery in 1925 (in the Pre-Nazi era), then does it mean that the portrait was always the property of the Gallery? This sort of question is the fine line between what should and should not be returned.

If an item is donated to a museum, it is legal property of the museum. Therefore, should it remain at the museum?  This is one of the ethical stances that people may take when they investigate claims for reclaiming lost art during WW2. It is a very precarious undertaking as the family and their lawyers have to prove ownership of the original item. This is incredibly hard to do as the Nazi’s were systematic in their destruction of records denoting the painting’s true origins.

Although, personally I believe if an art gallery has known pieces of art work, sculptures or objects d’art that belonged to Jewish or other patrons of art, they should be given back to the family. Of course, this is not in ignorance of statute of limitation laws that are in place in a lot of European countries. However, the ethical and moral thing to do would be to reconstitute these paintings back to their rightful owners. The Jewish people and other minorities (Christian’s, Muslim’s, Gay’s, Roma’s etc.) suffered enough at the tyranny of Nazism, and a reconstitution of their art work could go some way to relieve their suffering.

As can be seen by the above examples and my arguments for repatriation of various objects, repatriation itself is and continues to be so a divisive and stormy political issue. As the years go on, more and more calls for repatriation of objects or looted art works could be made. How do we draw the fine line on what to return and what not to return? Surely we have think carefully in what we give back, as then our museums will be sadly depleted of the treasures that they hold. Although, if the objects have a murky or bloody history, the right thing to do is to return to them to their point of origin.

As can be seen, this is an ongoing and vicious circle with endless debate over what is ethical and what is moral in the return of cultural objects. For more information on repatriation and looted art objects, please see:

*Mark O’Neil, as quoted in The Sunday Independent, Culture Section, 8th November 1998.’


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