Sunday, December 24, 2006

Kimmelman on the Year in Art (and Law)

Quite a bit of law in Michael Kimmelman's year-in-review piece in Sunday's New York Times:

"The legal and public relations struggle over the return of antiquities to Italy and Greece by American museums like the Metropolitan and the Getty became an occasion this year for much thoughtful hand-wringing, raising the big question: Where, as a society, will we stand on the issue of cultural property? ...

"Restitution is obligatory when international laws are broken. But evidence is frequently vague. Ethics can be too. Ask the archaeologists who have been trying to piece together what’s left of the Bamiyan Buddhas, blown up by the Taliban in 2001 in Afghanistan, whether objects necessarily “belong” to the people who now occupy the land where the art comes from.

"The Met transferred title of a famous Greek vase and 20 other objects to Italy this year: the booty of a long-dead empire heading back to the modern state that happens to be on its soil. The law was served, and the gesture seemed savvy.

"At the same time American museums retained, and continue to retain, art dubiously collected from countries in Africa and Southeast Asia .... How far should we go to purge our museums? At the heart of the patrimony issue is American self-identity: capitalism, free trade and the democratic ideal.

"And is there any way to describe the escalating orgy of spending on art this year but as obscene? Collectors were paying upward of $130 million for Pollocks and Klimts, sums that make a skeptic ponder the other uses to which such fortunes could be put. The art world seems content, damn the potential long-term cost of being reduced to a mere investment vehicle.

"A few years back a lawyer for Jewish families seeking restitution from Swiss banks provoked a scandal when it became known that he took as a fee some $4 million. This year when members of a Jewish family sold the Klimts that Austria had finally returned to them, the family’s lawyer is said to have pocketed 40 percent of the $300 million they fetched. (Who knows how his contingency fee influenced the family’s decision to sell the art?) Almost nobody blinked."