The question of provenance of works of arts and antiquities is a sensitive issue. Three recent cases exemplify the difficulties. All three were reported in the March edition of The Art Newspaper and in various national media.
The simpler, and funny, case is that of Albrecht Dürer’s self-portrait, dating from 1500 AC. and recently the subject of a peculiar brawl between Munich and Nuremberg. Both cities are part of Germany’s southern state of Bavaria, but that was not always the case, and many Nuremberg Franconians do not like to think of themselves as Bavarians.
In any case, the portrait, which has its home at the Munich Alte Pinakothet, was recently placed on the wish list for a major exposition organized in Nuremberg from where Dürer originally came from. The Munich museum director objected the loan on grounds of the portrait’s great significance and fragile state—and that did not come down well in Nuremberg. The protest, in political circles but also among football fans, was loud. Nonetheless, the Munich Pinakothet did not give in and as a result, the exposition in Nuremberg will have to do with a copy.
That works of art are capable of eliciting strong emotions is what makes them special, yet what motivates debates like the one described above has more to do with the question of ‘national’ ownership. This is nowhere better illustrated than in the field of antiquities. The latest news on this comes from Turkey, where Erdogan’s government has been blocking arts’ loans to British and American museums in an attempt to force the return of antiquities carried away from archaeological sites in previous times and under dubious circumstances.
The official Turkish position is that these antiquities ‘belong’ to Turkey because they originated in locations which today form part of the Turkish territory, even if at the time of their making those locations were not Turkish. The counter-argument—academically elaborated in James Cuno’s edited volume Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities (Princeton University Press 2009)—is that antiquities belong to humankind and, therefore, are best exhibited in the cosmopolitan contexts of modern museums. This is, no doubt, a valid argument, but not so the frequently unspoken assumption that only Western museums, like those in Europe and the U.S., are cosmopolitan.
The third case concerns the handling of ethnic heritage in contested territories. An Israeli court recently ruled to stop development plans in Lifta, a historic Arab village on the outskirts of West Jerusalem, on the grounds that the commercial development plans had not adequately taken into account preservation goals. This was greeted only as a partial win by descendants of former residents, who had hoped the court would additionally acknowledge their property rights. Nevertheless, the decision is potentially far-reaching since it places the safeguarding of cultural heritage above both ownership and development.
From this perspective, the decision of the Munich Pinakothet not to lend Dürer’s self-portrait might have been the right one, if the portrait is indeed as fragile as it is claimed. As for Turkey’s antiquities, these were never national one or another way, yet enabling their exhibition also in their original local settings might be more in line with their cosmopolitan character.