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Emily Winetz Goldsleger

Contemplating Contradiction:
A Comparison of Art Restitution Policies

        Time and time again, American and international governments and museums have displayed, through their use of mechanisms such as international law, recovery associations, and organized research, a commitment to researching the provenance of European artworks. Through these actions and policies, as well as public statements, the institutions have demonstrated a historic commitment to ensuring that no private collector or organization possesses artworks that may have been illegally confiscated by the German and Austrian Nazi Party between 1933 and 1945. Exhaustive research and legal battles have resulted in numerous occasions in which specific paintings, drawings, and sculptures were returned to their original owners or living heirs or the objects were compensated for monetarily.

        Yet, one can hardly conclude that the international community universally embraces the underlying philosophy that all art and artifacts removed from the possession of individuals, nations, civilizations, and cultural groups by force, theft, deceit, or by an occupying power should be returned to their original owners. Nor does it seem to believe that collectors and organizations possess a moral obligation to return such works or offer compensation to those from whom they were acquired. The permanent collections of some of the world’s most prestigious museums, most notably The British Museum and the Louvre, are respected and often applauded for their ability to showcase world cultures. Yet, they would virtually cease to exist if ordered to return all works obtained during wartime or occupation. Furthermore, numerous nations have been rebuffed over and over again in their struggles to reclaim works residing in other countries that they insist are integral to their own cultural heritage and were obtained illegally, deceitfully, or by an occupying force.

        Examination of this apparent contradiction in policy is necessary. This paper questions why a disparity exists between, on the one hand, an unwavering insistence upon compensation for wrongdoings committed sixty years ago under Nazi rule and, on the other, a refusal to do so for the Parthenon Marbles, taken to Great Britain from Greece two hundred years ago in what can be perceived as an exploitation of political power. It examines the historical background surrounding each of these issues and their supporting theoretical arguments, as well as the resulting policies enacted by international law and participating governing bodies. It addresses the role of art administrators throughout the history of the debate and the issue’s moral implications for their work.


           Emily Winetz Goldsleger received her BA in Art History and Sociology from Emory University (Atlanta) in 1999. She served as the Public Affairs Specialist at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. While pursuing her Masters degree in Arts Administration, she interned in the Education Department of the Hyde Park Art Center and in the Office of Development and Alumni Affairs at SAIC.


Thesis Advisor: Gregory Sholette Assistant Professor, Arts Administration

Thesis Reader: Michael Dorf Adjunct Professor, Arts Administration









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