Thursday, 21 February 2013

Restitution after World War I

Picture: Getty
I just read a book on the collection of the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna that makes a cryptic reference to the return of 80 Venetian paintings to Italy in 1919. It clearly still rankles - "Italy's juristically controversial claim to the paintings led to their being returned" writes Renate Trnek in The Picture Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna: An overview of the collection (Vienna: Bohlau n.d.) p. 10. 

I was already aware that panels from Van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece (above) were returned from Berlin under the terms of the Versailles Treaty, so I did some more digging in the original peace treaties. The Reparations articles contain specific requirements for transfer of works of art, and in the case of Austria the open-ended requirement to submit to future demands to be determined by expert committee. 

It's remarkable that in 1919 the victors demanded that an African skull be repatriated ... to Britain! Also notable that the great Rubens St Ildefonso altar had to be returned to Belgium. It's still at the Kunsthistorisches in Vienna, so I assume it was never returned. 

There was no equivalent treaty after World War II; the allies simply arrogated jurisdiction over the Third Reich's territory. However, the paintings from the Berlin museum that weren't destroyed by fire or in the Soviet zone were transported to Washington D.C. where they were shown in the brand-new (and largely empty) National Gallery of Art. I understand that there was some debate at the time about keeping them, but they were swiftly repatriated to Germany. I suspect that World War I was the last major war where the peace treaties contained significant provision for the movement of cultural property as part of war damages. 

The Versailles Treaty required:

  • Return to France of objects looted in the Franco-Prussian War.
  • Return to the King of Hedjaz of a Koran taken from Medina by the Turks and given to Kaiser Wilhelm.
  • Return to Britain of the skull of Sultan Mkwawa removed from German East Africa.
  • Provision of books and manuscripts to Louvain to compensate for the burning of the library.
  • Transfer of panels by Van Eyck from the Ghent Altarpiece.
  • Transfer of panels by Bouts from the Last Supper Triptych in Louvain, from the Alte Pinakothek and the Berlin Museum.

The Treaty of San-Germain-en-Laye with Austria was even more demanding. In particular, Article 195 bound Austria to accept the determinations of a Committee of three jurists to be appointed by the Reparation Commission to investigate the conditions under which objects were removed from the Italian provinces to Austria. It also permitted submission of claims from Belgium, Poland and Czecho-Slovakia, and bound all parties to accept decisions taken by the Committee. A number of specific objects and collections were identified for return, including:

  • Medici crown jewels to be returned to Tuscany.
  • An Andrea del Sarto and four Correggio drawings, paintings by Rosa and Dosso Dossi and various bronzes to Modena.
  • Twelfth century objects made in Palermo for the Norman kings to be returned to Palermo.
  • Manuscripts and documents removed in 1718 to be returned to Naples.
  • Rubens Triptych of St Ildephonse and other objects to Belgium (this is still in the Kunsthistorisches).
  • The gold cup of King Ladislas IV to be returned to Poland.
  • Various documents and manuscripts to be returned to Czecho-Slovakia.

I'm now interested to learn more about details of what was actually moved after the War - what did Germany send to Louvain, and what did the Committee require Austria to relinquish?   More information and references gratefully received.


  1. You probably know this already but the Institute of Art and Law is a good starting point for these things.
    They have some useful Links and very good courses.

  2. Thanks, yes it's very useful. It's interesting to see how far attitudes have shifted. I understand that when Wellington tried to return paintings re-captured from the French in the Peninsular War in 1813 he was told not to be so silly - they're legitimate spoils of war! Hence the great pictures at Apsley House in London.

  3. I didn't now this. What a great excuse to visit it for the upcoming Museums at Night! Yes, the change of attitudes is radical. Every issue of The Art Newspaper reports more and more restitution cases. Movies are made about them (recently, Portrait of Wally). Great for the lawyers:) But unclear where this would leave us if this argument is taken to its logical conclusion...