Author:King, Chris
Position:Conference notes

This Symposium, organised by Art & Law Cambridge (a group of History and Art History researchers at the University of Cambridge) brought together experts working in a number of different fields (including anthropology, art auctions and scientific analysis of art works) to address the broad conference theme of art, law and politics from their own perspectives.

The event, which took place in the Audit Room at King's College, adorned with panels painted by Bloomsbury Group artists Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, was divided into three sessions.

The theme of the morning session, chaired by Professor Caroline von Eck (Professor of Art History and Fellow of King's College, Cambridge) was 'The Cost of Art'.

The first speaker was Richard Aronowitz (Senior Director and European Head of Restitution at Sotheby's, London). In his talk he illustrated the Nazi attitude to modern art (especially such art that had belonged to Jewish collectors) by focusing on the story of one particular painting: Karl Hofer's Seated Female Nude. This painting had been in the collection of a Jewish lawyer from Breslau, Dr Ismar Littmann. After his suicide in 1934, owing to the family's straitened financial circumstances, his widow, Kaethe, consigned the painting to the Nazi-owned Max Perl auction house in Berlin. Before the auction could take place, the Gestapo entered the auction house and took Seated Female Nude and eight other paintings, regarded as 'Degenerate Art'. The other eight paintings were destroyed, but for reasons unknown Seated Female Nude was spared.

The painting was subsequently displayed in the infamous Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition which opened in Munich in 1937 and, by the end of the Second World War, it was in the collection of the National Gallery in Berlin.

The speaker explained that many of the works in the Entartete Kunst exhibition had been taken from German museums and were later sold off for the Nazi government by art dealers including Hildebrand Gurlitt, who, as we now know, kept many works for himself. (1) Interestingly, very few of the works found in 2013 in the possession of Gurlitt's son, Cornelius, have been positively identified as looted art. Many works were lost as a result of sales prompted by financial necessity resulting from the Depression of the 1930s, rather than as a result of Nazi looting or 'forced sales' directly resulting from Nazi persecution.

The second talk was given by Professor Nicholas Thomas (Professor of Historical Anthropology and Director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge). Professor Thomas discussed the ongoing debate concerning the return of museum objects to the countries from which they were taken by former colonial powers.

The debate has intensified recently with President Macron's speech in Ouagadougou in November 2017 and the publication the following year of Benedicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr's report (2) proposing the restitution of objects of African heritage from French museum collections. (3)

Professor Thomas illustrated his talk with the story of the Gweagal shield. (4) When Captain Cook and his men landed on the Australian coast at Botany Bay, they were confronted by a small group of indigenous Gweagal warriors. In the battle which ensued, one of these warriors was hit by Cook's men, dropped his shield and fled. A shield which appears somewhat similar to a contemporaneous drawing made of the Gweagal shield taken by Cook's men now resides in the collection of the British Museum and has been the subject of a claim by Rodney Kelly, a man of Gweagal ancestry, who claims to be a direct descendant of the injured warrior who dropped the shield. Kelly is leading a campaign for the return of the shield from the British Museum, and a number of spears also thought to have been taken by Cook and his men, from the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Professor Thomas pointed out some of the difficulties for museums faced with claims of this nature. Firstly, there are evidential matters, including, in this case, questions as to whether the British Museum shield is that taken by Cook's crew in 1770. Although it closely resembles in shape the shield drawn by a member of Cook's expedition, it has been argued that it is made of the wood of a tree which does not grow anywhere near Botany Bay. Questions have also been raised about Rodney Kelly's right to claim the return of these cultural objects. Establishing beyond doubt that the warrior who dropped the shield was his direct ancestor is not a straightforward matter and Mr Kelly is not a formally appointed representative of the Gweagal people. Although Kelly's campaign has received some influential support, including from Rachel Siewert, former deputy leader...

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