The Museum of Fine Arts Boston is no stranger to Holocaust restitution claims. In a press release dated October 19, 2000, the museum announced a settlement with the family of Federico Gentili di Giuseppe over Corrado Giaquinto's "Adoration of the Magi" (c. 1725), which was sold by a court in Nazi-controlled France. In the release, Malcolm Rogers, director of the museum, called restitution of World War II-era artwork "one of the most important issues that museums are dealing with today."
Rogers might have a bit of a prophet in him. In an article in Bloomberg on April 27, 2007, Catherine Hickley reported that the American Association of Museums had listed 25,424 works from 155 museums "that may have been looted by the Nazis." This recently hit home in Boston too, according to a May 28, 2008, article in The Boston Globe by Geoff Edgers, who reported on another MFA restoration case: Oskar Kokoschka's 1913 painting "Two Nudes (Lovers)," which an Austrian woman claims was sold under duress in Vienna in 1913.
This is of course part of a larger trend. Klein, Solomon & Urbach is an international firm specializing in Holocaust restitution; the Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (the "Claims Conference"), the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the Simon Wiesenthal Centers are Jewish organizations pushing for settlements, often with Swiss banks; and the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims closed its doors in March 2007, announcing the successful completion of its mission—and $306 million restored to 48,000 survivors and heirs for 90,000 claims. Even Elizabeth Taylor came under fire in May 2007 for a Van Gogh painting with a dubious provenance.
A looted painting is a looted painting is a looted painting, and like anything else, if it is stolen it ought to be returned. The British Museum regularly receives demands, which it ignores, from a variety of countries, to return its stolen collections, most prominently the Parthenon friezes from Greece. Stealing national treasures (especially under the banner of imperialism) is at least as bad as mugging someone in the street. Yet, there appears to be a double standard in the museum and gallery world, whereby Holocaust-era cases are attended to, while others are not.
The current show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, "Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul" (through September 7), illustrates this relativism.
"Hidden Treasures" draws together more than 200 artifacts from the National Museum, whose motto is "A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive." The works were unearthed in 2004 under the Presidential Palace after having been thought to be lost or destroyed in 25 years of violence. "Afghanistan's centrality on the Silk Road created a rich mosaic of cultures and civilizations. Although this mosaic was shattered by war and terror, both the spirit of the Afghan people and our cultural heritage survived," said Said Tayeb Jawad, Afghani ambassador to the United States, in the press release. "These priceless artifacts are a testament to the Afghan people and to the heroism of the brave and selfless Afghans who preserved and protected them."
This braveness preserved some of the world's greatest treasures, which are beautiful in their own right and need no other justification. The National Gallery notes this on a page on its website called "Artistic Exchange: Europe and the Islamic World," where it says that while many of its Islamic pieces from Europe "reveal the broader international context of their time," the gallery chose them "for their own aesthetic qualities and as exemplars of European culture." The works in "Hidden Treasures" range from pottery to architectural fragments to jewelry to more than 100 gold pieces from the "Bactrian Hoard," about 20,000 pieces found at the site of Tillya Tepe (Afghanistan) in 1978. Many of the works also illustrate the multi-cultural exchanges facilitated by the Silk Route, in which Greek, Italian, Chinese, Indian, and Persian traders shared and swapped artistic and cultural symbolism and forms, evidenced by a mix of images of Hercules, Dionysius, Athena, cupids, dragons, geometric designs and various animal images with images of the Hindu and Buddhist kinnari and the Buddhist leogryph, which is incidentally the logo of the Asia Society.
The main reason to see the show is the art, not to remedy a wrong committed against Kabul's national museum, and not to question why so much political and financial muscle is being thrown into returning Nazi-looted art rather than Afghani art. But when you do go, please remember shows do not occur in political and historical vacuums — especially not this one.
The National Gallery of Art is to be commended for bringing attention to Afghani art, and it probably would not hurt many Americans to learn that there is culture and beauty in Afghanistan beyond the tyranny that shows up in much of the reporting on the region. WIRED magazine's Ryan Singel reported in April 2003 on a group of archaeologists and historians who, "angry at the looting of Iraq's cultural heritage — and at the U.S. government for allowing it," set up a "comprehensive, searchable image database of the tens of thousands of objects that are missing and presumed to be in the hands of professional art thieves." But there needs to be even more attention to looted works, and "Hidden Treasures" and the online database seem to be the exception where the general rule is that Afghani and Iraqi art is ignored. Perhaps with more such exhibits and projects all looted works can be returned to their rightful owners with the sort of success rate being achieved with art looted by the Nazis.