When I was doing art festivals, I never worked very hard to secure the inventory. Most other painters took the same approach. While jewelers and other craftsmen sometimes had things stolen, paintings were immune. Most working artists sell paintings to people who have an emotional response to their work, and that’s something that would be blunted if the work in question were acquired dishonestly. Artwork at this level hasn’t been commodified in the same way that collectible masterworks are.
That’s vastly different from one of the main moral dilemmas facing our age: the problem of repatriating paintings stolen by the Nazis. Today’s announcement by Federal officials that an eighteenth century painting has been returned to Poland was timed to coincide with the release of George Clooney’s The Monuments Men.
"If members of the American public question the provenance of cultural objects from World War Two in their possession, they are urged to call Homeland Security Investigations," said Nicole Navas, a spokeswoman for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Right. The bald fact is that, sixty years after the fact, most Nazi loot is returned only reluctantly.
The Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg or ERR was dedicated to stealing cultural property from subdued nations, Jews in particular. It managed to steal 20% of the known art in Europe, operating in France, Belarus, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic states.
A vast amount of that was recovered immediately post-war; however, there are still hundreds of thousands of items that have never been returned to their rightful owners (or their descendants, since those owners are mostly now dead).
Somewhere there is a rich collector who goes to his basement vault to revel in possessing the spectacular haul from the never-solved Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist of 1990. That person is pretty twisted. But the unrecovered Nazi loot is far, far worse, in part because of its scale. There are hundreds or even thousands of people out there holding on to it. They eat off silver and crystal in dining rooms graced with paintings that were bought and paid for with the blood of millions of genocide victims. That’s beyond simple theft; that’s absolute perversion of the soul.
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!