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.
Meanwhile, archaeologists argue that some Mayan and Malian
objects in an exhibit at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts may have been
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
"It seems that the art world has only just discovered that it
is walking through a minefield," says historian Jonathan
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
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.
Dealers want to ensure that US officials are not moving to
enforce the export laws of other countries or require that all
antiquities sold in the US have a valid export permit - moves they
say will destroy their business.
"The terms of the debate have been cast as if we're all
crooks, which is too bad, because there is a wonderful public role
played by people who collect art and donate it," says Frederick
Schultz, president of the National Association of Dealers in
Ancient, Oriental & Primitive Art, who attended the Feb. …