During my undergrad studies at UMass Amherst, there was a big media buzz about cultural ownership and cultural heritage, as many United States museums were being told they had to return some of their antiquities to their countries of origin. It also coincided with the publication of The Rape of Europa and the subsequent documentary of the same title. Needless to say, repatriation, restitution, and cultural ownership became hot topics of discussion in my art history courses.
One of the most prominent stories in the media was the so called, “hot pot,” the Exekias Vase that had been part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Collection since the late 1970s. When the provenance of the piece was questioned and the museum was unable to provide sufficient information to prove that the piece was not illegally excavated, the Met returned the piece to the Italian Ministry of Culture. The Met did not HAVE TO return the vase, but it would have been in very poor taste if they had not done so. Because of their eagerness to cooperate with the Italian Ministry of Culture, the two entities have a positive relationship and have agreed to give each other long-term loans.
Another hot story was the media buzz surrounding Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. The art nouveau artist most famous for his iconic work, The Kiss, was a prominent artist who worked in around Vienna. This portrait of a family friend, Adele Bloch-Bauer, ended up in the Austrian State Gallery decades after WWII, when the portrait was originally stolen from the Jewish family by the Nazis. The surviving family members were shocked that the portrait of their deceased relative which was thought to be lost or destroyed was now on display in a museum. The family had to fight incredibly hard to get the piece back, hiring many lawyers and attending long, arduous trials. In the end, the family had to sell the painting as soon as they got it back, just to be able to pay for the legal fees. It is now in a small gallery in New York City.
What I find most fascinating about these scenarios, besides the obvious thievery and shady business dealings, is, especially in regard to the Exekias Vase, is that art as a sign of national identity. Though there are countless vases in hundreds of museums across Italy and Greece, this one particular vase was suddenly transformed into a symbol of cultural theft. I have very strong opinions about cultural ownership and retribution, which would be way too much to fully go into in this post, but I do understand why a country would want a piece back if it was, in fact, proven to be stolen from their soil. I do not think, however, that every piece created in Italy should stay in Italy. Art should educate and start a dialogue. If we, as citizens of the United States, were only exposed to art and artifacts created in our country’s very short history, we’d be missing out on a sophisticated world view.
The power of art, and the connection that people, countries, families feel towards these art works, is most apparent in regard to cases of ownership. If I’ve sparked your interest in the topic of cultural ownership, I recommend you watch/read Lynn H. Nicholas‘s The Rape of Europa and/or search ‘hot pot’ in Google to get countless articles about the return of the Exekias Vase.