Carrot Versus Stick: Encouraging Private Collections to Self-Audit Collections for Looted Cultural Property

There is no question that the serious legal consequences of acquiring looted cultural property—either purposefully or accidentally—is often a sufficient deterrent for private collectors to avoid pursuing artifacts from countries embroiled in conflict, like Iraq or Syria.  In light of the undesirable outcome private collectors understandably envision, such as the forfeiture and negative publicity surrounding the recent settlement between Hobby Lobby and the United States government, is there a way for governments to encourage private collectors to voluntarily self-audit their collections?

Image Courtesy of Sergeant Hewitt C.H., No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit (c) Second World War

History offers an example that is still relevant today.  In 1988, 44 governments participating in the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets endorsed specific principles for dealing with Nazi-looted art. A website for looted art was also created following this endorsement. Known as the Central Registry of Information on Looted Cultural Property 1933-1945, this website points out all the recent initiatives to trace art and other cultural property looted around the time of World War II.  Today, many museums post images of their collections online, making it easier to identify potentially looted artwork.

A recent article pointed out, however, that the 1988 principles are primarily focused on actions that national governments, rather than private individuals, should undertake to identify and recover Nazi-looted art.  The chief reason for the discovery of the “troubling origins” of artwork owned by a German processed foods company called Dr. Oetker, for example, was only because the company’s board voluntarily commissioned an audit in 2015.  The company is publicly vocal about the Nazi links of the company’s former executive and the company’s recent efforts to bring transparency to those links.

In this same vein, are private collectors like Dr. Oetker more willing to conduct such self-audits simply because of the passage of time since World War II, or is it because the focus by national governments today is chiefly focused on the repatriation of objects looted during the war?  The repatriation distinction is important because collectors might view the repatriation of Nazi-looted art to former owners differently than the return of objects looted from Iraq and Syria to governments without sufficient resources to protect and preserve those objects.  Or is a self-audit more likely—and frankly, more feasible in the eyes of the collectors who might conduct them—because there are more tools and resources available for Nazi-looted art rather than cultural property looted from regions presently embroiled in conflict?

There is a great deal of discussion today about how to tackle the problem of looted cultural property.  If the best approach is to focus on the demand side—the private collectors who acquire such property and the market countries—the best approach could still involve the inclusion of government encouragement more in the form of a carrot (versus a stick) when appropriate.  For example, such encouragement could include funding to update guidelines originally issued by the Association of Art Museum directors or more explicit support for the creation of principles (such as those created by Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets) for private collectors associated with today’s conflict regions.  Finally, encouragement could take the form of more specific law enforcement guidance on any credit or consideration given to private collectors who implement compliance programs like the one Hobby Lobby is supposed to create or credit given for collectors who self-audit under certain principles.


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