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….
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.