The Return of Looted Artefacts since 1945: post-fascist and post-colonial restitution in comparative perspective

The Return of Looted Artefacts since 1945: post-fascist and post-colonial restitution in comparative perspective

Bianca Gaudenzi, Deutsches Historisches Institut, Rom / Konstanz / Cambridge
Max Weber Stiftung
Vom - Bis
16.05.2022 - 18.05.2022
Rose Marengo, Galway

The Max Weber Foundation conference inquired into post-fascist and post-colonial restitution practices and discourses and their evolution over time. Through an innovative comparative approach, the conference strove to understand whether similarities between fascist-era and colonial-era restitution cases exist – and if so, why. Delving deeper into those similarities as well as differences was used as a means to better assess the political relevance of heritage and its role in memory and nation building vis-à-vis the rise of human rights, but also the persistence of anti-Jewish and racist stereotypes in the post-1945 world order and the recurrence of restitution motives in present-day nationalist propaganda. Whilst the diversity of academic fields represented at the conference (historians, lawyers, archaeologists) allowed for an enriching interdisciplinary debate, the combined presence of academics, provenance researchers, curators, and museums’ practitioners, meant that the reflection did not only tackle discursive aspects, but also encompassed practical considerations that could potentially contribute to an in-depth restructuration of the museum in the future.

JASON LUSTIG (Austin, TX) first inquired into the power dynamics embedded in the definitions used to describe instances of looting and restitution. The use of culture as a justification for war, he argued, must force us to ponder on the intricate and complex nature of cultural looting. He focused primarily on the way in which Nazi-looted artworks fitted in the US narrative of justification for war, but urged for a similar critical stance to be adopted in the context of colonialism.

Similarly, JAMES MCSPADDEN’s (Reno, NV) reference to the double confiscation of books – first by the Nazis and then by the U.S. – challenged Hollywood’s black and white narratives, and the grey zones of restitution reckoned with. The looted books that can still be found in U.S. libraries remain the unique tokens of a story that might otherwise have been lost or forgotten, illustrating the importance of studying material culture.

Moving away from definitions, LARS MÜLLER (Leipzig) advocated in favour of the longue durée perspective to achieve a comprehensive understanding of restitution cases. Müller, Lustig, and McSpadden raised questions relevant to the post-fascist and post-colonial contexts alike. Who gets to tell the story of restitutions? What is the significance of restitution for the relationship between the countries owing the looted objects, and the countries claiming for their return?

The following contributions pondered on the state’s role in the restitution process. BARBARA VODOPIVEC’s (Ljubljana) study of post-1945 Yugoslavia reveales that whilst the state’s involvement in the restitution process can deeply – and positively – influence the restitution’s outcome, an unwelcomed consequence might be the exclusion of the legitimate owners of the looted cultural artefact to the margins of the process. Similarly, ABENA YALLEY (Konstanz) and DANIEL KWOFIE (Accra) showed that the Ahantas’ agency in the restitution process of Badu Bonso II’s head remained extremely limited, despite the centrality of the head for the Ahantas’ identity building. The case study raised several questions on institutional approaches to post-colonial restitutions. What are the specific parameters that need to be accounted for in the case of the restitution of human remains? Is the gesture of restitution sufficient as to restore a greater equilibrium between the two countries involved in the process? SHAUNA ISAAC (London) and SHLOMIT STEINBERG (Jerusalem) revealed the power of emotions in attracting popular and political attention – and driving the restitution process forward. Whilst Isaac retraced the looting and restitution of Egon Schiele’s painting “Portrait of Wally”, Steinberg inferred that the worldwide mediatic interest surrounding the Gurlitt International Taskforce led to an enhanced political interest in the place of provenance research for art museums in Israel.

The next speakers endeavoured to suggest conceptual and legal frameworks that could be applied to both post-fascist and post-colonial restitution practices. TABITHA OOST (Amsterdam) articulated the tensions between competing interests (those were at the heart of the criticisms addressed against the Dutch approach to Nazi-looted art restitutions) and warned against the risk of having similar attitudes extended to colonial restitutions. BENNO NIETZEL (Bochum) explored how the correlation between collective and individual claims evolved over time. Whilst in the 1940s collective claims for the return of Nazi-looted goods prevailed, the 1990s witnessed a shift towards individual claims. Claims related to the post-colonial context, which are always collective in nature, are currently increasing. One must consider whether post-colonial claims have so far been given limited attention precisely because of their collective nature – which, as argued by Regula Ludi in the case of Holocaust-era restitution,[1] would not resonate in a neoliberal narrative. LEORA BILSKY and RACHEL KLAGSBRUN (Tel Aviv) focused on collective restitutions as a way to reconstruct one’s culture, and in that light choose to compare the contemporary decolonization movement to early post-1945 restitutions. They explored how the composing of lists have been used by victim groups as a bottom-up alternative to deal with the loss of their cultural treasures and works of art. In what ways could the victims’ composition of lists be used to advance alternative concepts of restitution, especially when faced with absences or gaps in the historical narrative?

Several contributions focused on the practical and theoretical ramifications of provenance-research. CHRISTINE HOWALD (Berlin) investigated how should provenance researchers respond to objects with overlapping layers of historical injustices and cultural looting. MATTES LAMMERT (Berlin/Paris) argued that provenance-research should move away from the objects and embrace a larger context-oriented approach. DAN HICKS (Oxford) advocated in favour of European or U.S. museums sending looted objects as temporary installation to claimant African countries, with provenance due diligence and restitutions taking place directly there. JONATHAN BACH (New York) explored the reasons for the intricate connection between provenance research and colonial reckoning in Germany. He revealed that whilst the tools elaborated in the case of Nazi-looted artefacts were adapted to post-colonial restitutions, the German government remains very cautious of clearly delimiting the two contexts – in the fear of relativisation of the Holocaust.

Different arguments relating to museum’s practices and approaches to restitution were then explored. VERONIKA RUDORFER (Vienna) steered a stimulating debate on the relationship between the artists and the institutions, and the extent to which museums have shifted the responsibility of confronting the difficult legacies of some of their collection onto the artists’ shoulders. ACHIA ANZI (Amsterdam) argued that the modern museum was conceived to neutralise the original function and authority of the colonial objects. To achieve a comprehensive restitution, the museum must therefore engage in a radical transformation to break through its colonial foundations. Through a comparison of the Benin City Museum and the British Museum’s display of the Benin objects, STAFFAN LUNDÉN (Gothenburg) reflected on the ways in which difficult aspects of an object’s heritage are incorporated – and sometimes omitted – from the museums’ narratives.

Beyond the issue of restitution and ownership, how to address the challenges linked to the unavoidable partiality of representations – and the related exclusion of a range of perspectives? How have museums’ displays influenced – and still influence – our perception of past wrongs? Should the museums’ efforts to include difficult legacies in the representation of their collections be considered as another endeavour to avoid restitution? These questions were at the heart of BÉNÉDICTE SAVOY’s (Berlin) keynote speech. She argued that knowledge of the collections could represent a tangible danger for the collections, and wondered whether the only viable option might be to have museums without such display of information.

FLAMINIA BARTOLINI’s (Rome) focus on the ex-Colonial Museum in Rome provided a case study of a museum’s attempt at confronting the difficult legacies of the objects in its collection. The specificities of the Italian context were further discussed in papers highlighting the obliteration process characteristic of the way in which Italy dealt with looted colonial artefacts for several decades. BEATRICE FALCUCCI’s (L’Aquila) study of the return of mar Al Mukthar’s glasses was extremely interesting for its analysis of the role of relics, and the idea that authenticity is in fact not secondary as the true glasses are associated with “genuine power”. SIMONA TROILO (L’Aquila) revealed how restitutions were used as a way to reinforce the myth of Italians as “brava gente” and downplay the historical responsibility of Italy towards its former colonies. Finally, FRANCESCA CAVAROCCHI (Florence) insisted on the need to look more closely at networks of cultural institutions, national and local museums and their influence at the institutional and governmental level.

A roundtable on Italy’s post-fascist and post-colonial memory concluded the conference. Uoldelul Chelati Dirar (Macerata) focused on the complex interaction between Eritreans and the former Italian colonisers. Looking at the city of Trieste, Donata Levi (Udine) stressed the importance of finding new approaches to Holocaust remembrance in a city that has not yet fully confronted the difficult legacies of Italy’s fascist past. Igiaba Scego (Rome) presented her novel “Figli dello stesso cielo”, which stressed the importance of transgenerational education. Emanuele Pellegrini (Lucca) emphasised the new phase of museology we are currently facing, as our understanding of “permanent” collections is being radically challenged.

The present report is a token to the wealth of topics discussed. The papers suggested some initial pathways by which to apprehend the restitution process in all its complexity. Who are the protagonists necessary for the completion of the restitution process? Is it possible to “complete” the process? Should restitution be understood as the restoration of a past condition or should it be conceived as the launch of a new equilibrium all together – a new layer to the object’s history rather than the tearing down of past ones? Many practical questions were also raised, touching primarily on the issues of ownership, representation, and the notion of absence. How should museums represent and narrate the looted objects present in their collection? How should provenance researchers cope with the long biographies of looted objects, and the unavoidable uncertainties stemming from it? What does ‘restitution’ mean in practice? Is the notion of legal ownership of the objects separate from physical possession, as maintained by Belgium in a 2022 draft on a legal restitution framework for post-colonial looted artefacts? In the near future, it will be paramount to offer compelling answers, as the only way to reassure EU and US institutions and states and encourage them to embrace restitution paths more heartily.

The conference’s comparative approach helped gain some insights into the reasons for the – still – limited success of claims for the restitution of colonial artefacts. First, their collective nature, at odds with the contemporary neoliberal narrative rooted into individuals and the notion of private property. Second, the lack of understanding of the object’s significance for the community asking for its return – resulting in the community’s dissatisfaction with the unfolding of the restitution process. Through its efforts at establishing connections between post-authoritarian restitution instances across institutional and national borders since the end of World War II, the conference successfully overcame the compartmentalisation along national, disciplinary and thematic boundaries, which is often still characteristic of the field of restitution. The conference provided a dynamic platform of discussion, with its key lessons having the potential of profoundly impacting post-fascist and post-colonial restitution practices and discourses alike.

Conference overview:

Panel I: Redefining restitution across the 1945 divide
Chair: Thomas Kirchner (Deutsches Forum für Kunstgeschichte Paris)

Lars Müller (Saxony-Anhalt Museum Association & Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography, Leipzig): Historicising claims for the return of cultural heritage from colonial contexts

Jason Lustig (Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies, Austin, TX): To the victors go the definitions? Looting, restitution, and the post-WWII US culture wars

Panel II: Shifting power structures & identity politics
Chair: Miloš Řezník (German Historical Institute Warsaw)

Winani Thebele (Botswana National Museum): The restitution of cultural property: a question of power structures and lost identity

Barbara Vodopivec (Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Ljubljana): The restitution of artworks from Austria to Yugoslavia after 1945 in the new Central and Eastern European post-war reality

Abena A. Yalley (University of Konstanz) / Daniel Kwofie (University of Professional Studies, Accra): Restitution is equal to what? The assassination and return of the head of Badu Bonso II by the Dutch and its implications for the Ahanta people of Ghana

Keynote speech

Bénédicte Savoy (Technische Universität Berlin): A monument to burnt villages? On the consequences of radical transparency in museums

Panel III: A multiple burden. Tackling colonial, Nazi and GDR-era provenances together
Chair: Thomas Maissen (German Historical Institute Paris) / Bénédicte Savoy (Technische Universität Berlin)

Christine Howald (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin): Traces of loss – Asian objects from Jewish collections in German museums

Mattes Lammert (Technische Universität Berlin / Deutsches Forum für Kunstgeschichte Paris): Displacement of displaced objects. Paris, a trading hub of antiquities under German occupation

Xenia Schiemann (Technische Universität Berlin): Restitutions behind the Wall? Art market and claims for the return of looted cultural goods between the GDR and the West

Panel IV: Institutional responses to restitution claims
Chair: Simone Lässig (German Historical Institute Washington)

Jonathan Bach (The New School, New York): The object as a site of reckoning in Germany’s layered pasts

Borbála Klacsmann (independent researcher, Hungary): “In conflict with the moral mindset of the Hungarian people”: Anti-Jewish notions in the restitution to Hungarian Holocaust survivors

James McSpadden (Reno, NV): Looted Nazi and Holocaust-era books in the United States and the changing rationales for restitution

Panel V: Public and artistic narratives of restitution
Chair: Christina von Hodenberg (German Historical Institute London)

Shlomit Steinberg (Israel Museum, Jerusalem): Dr. Gurlitt and I

Staffan Lundén (Gothenburg): The Benin bronzes. Whose stories get told, silenced or neutralised?

Shauna Isaac (independent researcher, London): Portrait of Wally: The first major restitution case and its influence on restitution in the last two decades

Veronika Rudorfer (Kunstforum Wien): Another form of restitution? Possibilities and problems of contemporary artistic practices dealing with questions of restitution

Panel VI: Comparing post-fascist & post-colonial restitution: a legal perspective
Chair: Birgit Schäbler (Orient-Institut Beirut) & Arianna Visconti (Catholic University, Milan)

Leora Bilsky / Rachel Klagsbrun (Buchmann Faculty of Law & Minerva Center for Human Rights, Tel Aviv University): Beyond restitution: from Jewish cultural reconstruction to the Sarr-Savoy Report – challenging the private property paradigm

Tabitha Oost (Amsterdam): A changing “moral” paradigm in an entangled restitution debate: lessons learned for the restitution of Nazi-looted and colonial cultural objects

Benno Nietzel (Ruhr University Bochum): Collective and individual claims in the restitution of cultural property

_Panel VII: Decolonising museal practices
Chair: Christian K. Neumann (Ludwig-Maximilian-University, Munich)

Achia Anzi (University of Amsterdam / Jindal University, Delhi): Institution, destitution, restitution: how to decolonise the museum?

Flaminia Bartolini (Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche / British School, Rome): Renegotiating the past at the ex-Colonial Museum in Rome

Dan Hicks (Oxford): The Brutish Museums

Panel VIII: Italy and its colonial discontents
Chair: Ilaria Pavan (Pisa)

Francesca Cavarocchi (Florence): Lost in transition: postwar Italy facing claims for cultural objects by its former colonies

Simona Troilo (L’Aquila): The slow restitution. The return of colonial artifacts in Republican Italy

Beatrice Falcucci (l’Aquila): The Colonial Museum in Rome and requests for repatriation: the Libyan case

Final Roundtable: Italy’s post-fascist & post-colonial memory through material culture
Chair: Bianca Gaudenzi (German Historical Institute Rome / Konstanz / Cambridge

Valeria Deplano (Cagliari), Donata Levi (Udine), Igiaba Scego (writer, Rome), Emanuele Pellegrini (Scuola IMT Alti Studi Lucca), Uoldelul Chelati Dirar (Macerata)

Concluding remarks

Bianca Gaudenzi (German Historical Institute Rome / Konstanz / Cambridge), Lutz Klinkhammer (German Historical Institute Rome), Martin Baumeister (German Historical Institute Rome)

[1] Regula Ludi, Second-Wave Holocaust Restitution, Post-Communist Privatization, and the Global Triumph of Neoliberalism in the 1990s, in Yod (online) 21: 2018, p. 1–28.

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