Seizing the artworks of a country or a people has always been used as a politically motivated cultural rape in times of conflict. Thus, artworks of disputed ownership have always been in the news. Just last week Germany again rejected Egypt’s demand to return its 3,350-year-old bust of Nefertiti, and there have been battles over ancient Etruscan artwork and Aztec artefacts, not to mention the Elgin Marbles, a collection of classical Greek marble sculptures, inscriptions and architectural artefacts that were part of the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis of Athens. They were brought to Britain by Lord Elgin in the early 1800s, remain in the British Museum and look likely to stay there.
The Nazis infamously looted art as a matter of course and Hermann Göring, head of the Luftwaffe, created a huge private collection of artefacts stolen from Jews and other victims of genocide. The Soviet Red Army then proceeded to plunder German artworks, many of which have ended up in public museums, private collections and, allegedly, in secret depots in Russia and Poland. The stolen artworks include sculptures by Nicola Pisano, reliefs by Donatello, Gothic Madonnas and paintings by Botticelli and Van Dyck.
The returning of artworks stolen by Nazis to the descendants of their original owners has been almost as controversial as their initial seizure. Austria’s museums are desolate following various court rulings. One of the most expensive art sales of all time, that of Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I for $135 million (Dh496m) in 2006, followed a court ruling that the painting be removed from the Belvedere museum in Vienna and restored to the American heirs of the original owner.