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Books: The “Spoils of War” 1995 conference papers

A survey touching all the bases, including losses, recoveries, legal debates, and cultural restitution

As they say, timing is everything. Both Boris Yeltsin and the German government asked for advance copies of this volume which comes out of the “Spoils of war” symposium held in New York, January 1995, by the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts. The conference assembled the diverse elements of what has now become the “restitution community”: curators, experts, government officials from more than a dozen countries, a contentious Russian delegation, the Russian journalists who revealed the existence of vast stores of war loot in Russian museums, and a curious press corps.

In 1995 the subject of war restitution was largely the domain of specialists and government officials who worked in this field. It is now the stuff of tabloid scandals, a favourite pursuit of television investigative reports. Given the “hot” nature of the subject, The spoils of war may get a broader reading than the usual collection of symposium minutes.

This seems intended as a book of record on the subject of Nazi war loot. Entries range from country reports of war losses (with some notable gaps) to case histories of recoveries of particular objects or collections (Quedlinburg, the gold of Troy), to debates over the law and practice of the restitution of cultural property. Yet even though it is destined for the reference shelf, some of the brief chapters are quite readable. If there is anyone who has not yet read Lynn Nicholas’s "The rape of Europa", a superb summary by the same author can be found here. The reminiscences of the US Army also read like the adventure that these exploits must have been.

Much of this valuable material has been overtaken by events, superseded by new research, new political situations and the advance of efforts to recover property seized during World War II.

Surprisingly, Switzerland barely figures in this volume, although that country has been pushed into the spotlight as a wartime Nazi trading partner (in art, among other things) and as a repository for gold and cash that the Nazis seized. Nor do major Jewish organisations figure in these debates over war spoils, even though those organisations have recently led campaigns to hold the Austrians, Swiss and French up to public shame for their wartime collaboration. (The relative silence until recently of Jewish organisations on the issue of war loot, much of which was seized from Jews, is also unexamined here). Nor does Italy enter the discussion (except in the bibliography), despite Italy’s tremendous losses and its discreet, effective campaign now underway to recover cultural property.

Documentation on individual countries varies in quality, and can lapse into self-serving officialese, and not just when it comes from the Russians. There is a chillingly brief section on France (pillaged extensively by French and Germans), although back in January 1995 Marie Hamon, representative of the French restitution office, did mention that storage of some 2000 paintings in French museums, news that was treated as a bolt of light on the road to Damascus when it appeared in French newspapers a few month ago and led to last month’s exhibition in the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, Centre Pompidou and other Paris museums of these works (The Art Newspaper, No.70, May 1997, pp.1-2).

In most countries—from the Czech Republic to Italy—war loss estimates tend to be higher now than they were in 1995, thanks to more systematic research and greater access to archives, spurred in part by the attention that the conference brought to the subject.

As the documentation sharpens and broadens public knowledge of the history of pillaging in World War II, the core issue remains the same: pillaging was illegal and countries that hold war loot are doing so in violation of international law.

The relevant treaties are printed in full in an appendix at the end of "The spoils of war". These undermine Russian arguments for holding onto art that the Red Army seized. Also undermining Russian claims for compensation is extensive documentation of the Russian failure to return property seized from countries such as Poland and France that were not its enemies during the war. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that Irina Antonova, director of the Pushkin Museum and a symposium participant, declined to have her remarks published in this volume, “underscoring the difficulties associated with the administration of the trophy [war booty] collections and the seriousness with which the issue is regarded within the Russian political establishment.”

The volume’s editor, Elizabeth Simpson, writes that ”the optimism that prevailed in the first half of this decade has yet to be realised in the second.” Public shame may be the most effective way to move matters along, as it has in France and Switzerland. The spoils of war, which helped set this in motion, also points to the huge job that remains.

Elizabeth Simpson, ed., The spoils of war. World War II and its aftermath: the loss, reappearance and recovery of cultural property, (Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1997), 336 pp, 98 b/w ills, 25 col. ills, $49.50 (hb only) ISBN 080944693

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 71 June 1997