Monday, November 13, 2006

But it’s for the Common Good!

When the Nazis controlled Germany and much of Europe, one of their many criminal acts was to confiscate works of art from wealthy Jews. Some of this art went into the private collections of Nazi officials, while others went into German museums.

Now it’s sixty years later, and the museums in question say it’s immoral for the descendants of those Jews to demand the return of their grandparents’ art:

Jewish heirs have laid claim to many valuable pieces of art currently hanging in German museums. Those charged with reaching a decision over the artworks -- whether they are museum directors or local politicians -- face a dilemma. On the one hand, there are the claims of the descendants of persecuted or murdered German Jews, who want works returned that were once taken from their ancestors under duress. On the other hand, it is in the public interest to ensure that important pieces of art remain in the country. Museum directors accuse some of those involved of being more concerned about the millions at stake than moral issues -- business-minded lawyers eager to satisfy an art market hungry for new material.

The word “millions” refers to the vast monetary value of the paintings under debate. The article actually opens with a scene at a New York auction house, where hundreds of millions of dollars change hands between super-rich art collectors and — whoever currently owns the art. Museums? Private collectors? It doesn’t say. But the point the museums are making in this paragraph is that the Jews who want grandpa’s paintings back only want them because they’re worth so much money; presumably the museums wouldn’t care if the Jews wanted merely to hang the paintings in their living rooms.

The article goes on to discuss some borderline cases where the heirs’ claims to the artworks are more dubious. The issue isn’t always black and white. But I keep stumbling over the paragraph saying that keeping loot which Nazis stole from Jews might be in the public interest.


Blogger rhhardin said...

There's some limit on the past. For instance we don't return the land stolen from the Indians.

An end to the chain of infinite liability is in the public interest, even of the Indians. What it becomes is History.

3:15 AM  
Anonymous mediageek said...

You know, it seems that in light of the historical record they'd be a bit more sensitive than to sink to engaging in slathering these people with a broad-based cultural stereotype.

3:39 PM  
Blogger Anne O'Neimaus said...

There's some limit on the past. For instance we don't return the land stolen from the Indians.

I think that when the "past" concerns events still within living memory, then it is a bit much to blithely consign it to "History", and say we can't do anything about it.

8:24 AM  

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