Is Restitution Right?
Sir Norman Rosenthal wrote an opinion piece in The Art Newspaper suggesting a statute of limitations on restitution. His point was picked up weeks later by both The Independent and the Telegraph but the reasoning behind his argument never gets quoted. That reasoning reveals another layer to the de-accessioning debate, a preference for art in the public sphere over transmitted property rights. (It’s important to remember that Sir Norman’s point is that third generation heirs are not necessarily more deserving owners than the public.)
Here’s what Sir Norman says redacted to highlight his train of thought:
History has always looked after works of art in strange ways. Ever since the beginning of recorded history, because of its value, art has been looted and as a result arbitrarily distributed and disseminated throughout the world. [ . . . ] If valuable objects have ended up in the public sphere, even on account of the terrible facts of history, then that is the way it is. [ . . . ] Nonetheless, it has to be good that important works of art should be available to all through public ownership. Restitution claims from museums go against this idea and result in the general culture being impoverished. [ . . . ] There is much market-driven hypocrisy buried within the subject of restitution. The art market encourages restitution from museums, which is particularly cynical and unpleasant—it is well known that lawyers and auction houses are trying to drum up trade in this way. Auction houses, the trade and the high value of works of art all have legitimate functions, but this kind of provenance activity does not reflect well on the world of art.
Of course, there’s an opposite point of view that validating looting only serves to encourage it in the future. Setting that aside, the striking thing about restitution, in this other context, is that it is the mirror image of deaccessioning. Whose rights are paramount here, the public trust–even if ill-gotten–or private property rights no matter how diluted or deferred?
The Time Has Come for a Statute of Limitations (The Art Newspaper)