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Art World Wary of New Rules

Stolen Goods

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 10, 1998



WASHINGTON

Two Expressionist paintings didn't make their flight back to Vienna. The works by Egon Schiele on exhibit in the Museum of Modern Art have been held up in New York because heirs of Holocaust victims claim they were stolen by the Nazis.

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Meanwhile, archaeologists argue that some Mayan and Malian objects in an exhibit at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts may have been looted.

These cases are challenging business as usual in the art world, which has been reluctant to ask as tough questions about the history of ownership of a work of art as it does about its authenticity.

"It seems that the art world has only just discovered that it is walking through a minefield," says historian Jonathan Petropoulos.

While museum directors and dealers say such cases threaten their ability to mount exhibits and undermine collecting of ancient art, investigators say they are forcing a long-needed change in widespread lax practices.

"The art business is the only multibillion-dollar international business that is totally unregulated. You couldn't buy a $500 used Chrysler the way you can a $500,000 painting," says Willie Korte, a leading expert in the identification and repatriation of artworks looted during World War II.

"People are required to do a title search when they buy a house or a car. It's mystifying why this hasn't become standard practice in the art world," adds Tom Hamilton, a partner with Mr. Korte in the Washington-based Trans-Art International.

But while museums and auction houses are nearing consensus on how to handle World War II disputes, there remain deep disagreements over how to resolve the issue of antiquities looting, which now rivals trafficking in drugs and illegal arms, according to INTERPOL.

In most of the antiquities cases, poor countries such as Mali and Guatemala find themselves on the opposite side from venerable museums and big-time collectors.

Lately, the small countries have had some big wins. After months of controversy, French President Jacques Chirac returned a disputed statuette to Mali on Jan. 22. The clay ram, which Malian officials said had been looted from an archaeological site in 1989, had been a gift from friends.

In recent months, US officials have also put some teeth into a 1970 UNESCO convention to crack down on illicit trade in cultural objects. Congress passed legislation in 1983 enabling the US to negotiate bilateral agreements to protect countries at high risk from looters, but the process didn't pick up momentum until last year, when agreements were signed with Canada, Peru, Guatemala, and Mali. Other talks are pending.

Some top art dealers say the Cultural Property Advisory Committee, which negotiates these agreements, is overstepping its mandate, and are mounting an offensive to curb it.

Curbing bilateral agreements

"We're seeing an increasing intensity of efforts of foreign nations to protect their cultural patrimony and look for new ways to get assistance from the US government. We've also seen a willingness of some people in the bureaucracy at USIA to stretch the law to accommodate foreign interests at the expense of US interests," says James Fitzpatrick, a top lawyer for dealers.

Some New York lawmakers who have taken the lead in urging justice for victims of World War II looting are at the same time urging restraint in using import restrictions to protect loot-prone countries. Last week, Rep. Charles Schumer (D) of New York hosted a meeting between leading antiquities dealers and USIA officials to discuss dealers' concerns.