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'La Restitution des Oeuvres d'Art, Solutions et Impasses'

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La Restitution des Oeuvres d'Art, Solutions et Impasses


Corinne Herskovitch & Didier Rykner


February 2011


Published by Hazan, Paris, 2011.

Review by Dr Jos van Beurden August 2012:
Corinne Herskovitch is a lawyer, specialized in restitution matters, both for private people and museums. Didier Rykner is director of the Paris based La Tribune de l’Art  about developments in the art from the middle ages until the 1930’s (the magazine has an English version). As the number of returns and the discussions about it have increased considerably, Herskovitch and Rykner have written a short introduction into the issue with remarkably much content: La Restitution des Oeuvres d'Art, Solutions et Impasses. They deal with the big and famous cases (Parthenon Marbles, Rosetta Stone, Euphronios Crater, Chinese rat and rabbit, etc.). The two are surprised that China does not try out the legal path more frequently and contents itself with purchasing some valued objects for high prices. They do not understand why source countries, gathered in Egypt in 2010, so much neglected the non-retroactivity of conventions.

Herskovitch and Rykner discuss quite a number French examples of successful and failed returns, among them three examples of Nigerian Nok statues with three different outcomes, Nazi spoliated art including the role of the Vichy government, and Korean manuscripts that were returned recently. They make it clear that even if the legal path is being used, still political arguments can be decisive. They clearly describe how France and other colonial powers contributed to the museum-infrastructure in their colonies and at the same time amassed, during wars, punitive expeditions, collecting for scientific purposes and collecting by private people, huge quantities of art and antiques from these countries. They also depict the stalemate between the former colonial powers and the source countries, but do not come to a conclusions as how to go on with this.

From their balanced texts one can learn, that claimants often forget to send a formal request for a return, whereas such a request could have helped. It is important to tick off the legal road, before one starts to walk other paths. Among these paths, mediation and arbitration are often practiced. They are less complicated and less costly. The authors conclude that it is too early to come up with general recommendations of how to deal with return. For the time being, each return requires its own approach. The discussion about return, as far as the authors are concerned, should become ‘more global and less emotional’. At the end they hold a plea for each object to find its most appropriate place, where as many people as possible can enjoy it. It is the only time I hesitated: as many people as possible reminds me of the big ‘universal’ museums in the Western world, that declared ten years ago not to want to discuss the return of tainted objects, that they had acquired long ago. They thought themselves able to attract most visitors. Many people in source countries objected to this.

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