Empty Frames in the Hermitage Museum St. Petersburg during the Siege of Leningrad World War II

Updated December 8, 2014

The provenance of art in the world’s museums often tells travellers more of a story than the art itself. My earlier post “Glories of the Hermitage” tells the story of the empty frames tours during the 900 day Siege of Leningrad. Stories of the extreme measures taken to protect artworks during WWII continue to emerge. As do stories of recently “discovered” pieces in museums and Munich basements.


Looking at the provenance of a single piece of art can take you through centuries,if not millennia, of conflicts, victors and economic shifts. The movement of art is history, both political and economic, in miniature. From the sales after revolutions in France and Russia, to the looting of Hitler, Napoleon and generations before them, art has crossed borders and landed in the world’s finest museums and private collections. Disputes continue over Elgin Marbles, Rosetta Stone and now a fascinating new find, the “Apollo of Gaza” (or Hamas’ Apollo). The recent loan by the British Museum of one of the  disputed Elgin statues (Marbles) to the Hermitage State Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia will certainly incite much new discussion on ownership, provenance and international relations.  Viewed by many as a provocative move at best, the world waits for the dialog to follow between museums, governments and the public.  Here is a recent New York Times  article on this surprising move by the British Museum.


Here are a few pictures of the new, magnificent Acropolis Museum overlooking the Acropolis in Athens and their portrayal of the missing marbles….

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The Acropolis Museum in Athens and the missing Elgin Marbles
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Close up of same display See next photo for explanation…
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At the Acropolis Museum, Athens
The Egyptian Museum Cairo

Such moves will continue and  will impact the willingness of nations to share art for exhibitions. But the disputes are also very, very personal.  Restitution is never clear cut.for art, jewels or palaces.  (I was recently in St. Petersburg and asked my guide if the Yusupov family had asked for the return of any of their homes or art since the fall of the Soviet Union.  She said no, no family had asked for the return of anything.)  Much of the Yusupov’s family art (a family that was wealthier than the Romanovs prior to the Russian Revolution) is in the new Storage rooms/annex of the State Hermitage Museum and a few pieces are on display during private tours.

This past year the movie Monuments Men premiered in the US. The story is riveting and I urge all to read the book of the work of these men. But their work only found the treasures. Finding their rightful owners continues in fits and starts. An excellent article, “Loot No Longer, A Reporter in France Helps to Return Art Taken by the Nazis.” looks at the work of France to find rightful owners. The legal questions are never clear cut, but with new attention focussed on the treasures found after WWII and the Elgin Marbles they are again front page. For a while.  There is hope that the attention may last longer this time as the Greek government has hired Amal Clooney, (George’s wife) to represent them in their efforts to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece.


3 thoughts on “Travel, Art and Monuments Men (Elgin Marbles)

  1. You make very good points, Jean – and to me, it ties in with the question if whether or not to destroy the ‘fake’ Chagall. As has been pointed out already, the case is now so well publicised that surely no collector is really going to buy it in error. And – what if, some years down the line, it turns out the experts were wrong?

  2. I was at the Acropolis Museum in October and saw the poignant exhibit with the missing pieces. I really feel as if the marbles belong to Greece and hope to see them returned. It seemed like such a provocative, almost snarky, thing to loan them to Russia. They aren’t theirs under any scenario and the Greeks are allies who could use the potential economic tourism boost of having them. I suppose getting them back could have been problematic but I’m not all that trusting of Putin either! I hope Amal Clooney can get it all straightened out. After all, no one thought George Clooney would ever get married again and she made that happen in no time!

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