The recovery of cultural property (art, sculpture, books, photos, artifacts, antiquities, etc.) is emerging as a dynamic and exciting legal practice area, with a strong and growing international component.
At the end of World War II, a young soldier from Texas, part of the unit that liberated the ancient German city of Magdeburg, wandered into the ruins of a local church and saw an oversized bible lying on the church’s stone floor. The manuscript, hand-illustrated in the late 16th century by local monks, intrigued the soldier. He picked it up and carried it with him until he was shipped home after the end of the war.
Fifty years later, the reunified German government discovered that the Magdeburg bible was in the late soldier’s family’s possession and requested that it be returned. The family refused and, after a lengthy court battle, a U.S. District Court held in favor of the German government and the bible was repatriated to the rebuilt church in Magdeburg.
Repatriation of art, artifacts, antiquities, rare books and other cultural property is fast becoming a big, international business. And there is a great deal of legal business out there. Countries whose cultural property was looted increasingly want it back, and have the deep pockets to pursue their works around the world.
The soldier from Texas was not unique. American soldiers looted and pillaged and estimated 100,000+ works of cultural property from defeated Germany at the end of World War II. This was peanuts compared to the estimated 2.5 million artworks and more than 10 million books and manuscripts the Red Army plundered and took back to the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, to date, only a handful of this huge American haul has been litigated and repatriated to Germany. Much remains to be targeted.
Germany is hardly the only country embarked on a mission to get its cultural property back. Italy, a country literally dripping with amazing art and antiquities, was similarly pillaged by American troops during the war.
Looting did not end with World War II. The latest American looting took place in Iraq. In 2003, the media was rife with reports of American soldiers standing by while Iraqis denuded the National Museum and Library in Baghdad. What did not get reported were the numerous arrests of returning American troops stopped at airports where they attempted to bring Iraqi booty into the U.S. For every arrest and confiscation, it is estimated that 100 Iraqi cultural property items made it through the authorities and into the homes of returning soldiers, either as collectables or items to be sold to museums and collectors.
Iraq now wants its property back. And it is willing to pay American lawyers for the legal advice and expertise necessary to accomplish its return.
A growing number of countries are becoming active in the art recovery arena, which is good news for attorneys worldwide. Given that American military service members have been deployed to so many nations and have returned home with cultural property, the opportunities on both sides of art ownership disputes are abundant.
For More Information
The 20-year old Art Loss Register in London, a joint partnership of leading international auction houses (including Christie's, Sotheby's, and Bonhams, among others) and art trade associations, the insurance industry, and the International Foundation for Art Research is the world's largest database of stolen art and antiques dedicated to their recovery. The Commission for Art Recovery in New York City focuses on restoring art that was seized, confiscated, or wrongfully taken as a result of the policies of the Third Reich and the Holocaust.
In addition to these private efforts, a number of public entities are also devoting resources to art recovery, including
Museums are also major players in the art recovery arena, usually as defendants in lawsuits brought by alleged prior owners to recover what they believe is their property.