In 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron made a radical pledge: France would repatriate all looted Sub-Saharan African artifacts within five years. He proceeded to commission a restitution report, the 2018 Sarr-Savoy Report, which called for sweeping repatriation. When a country known for its longstanding fervor for cultural patrimony (legally, objects in French museum collections are inalienable) and its violent colonial legacy in Africa, began to contemplate a policy of mass restitution, governments, museums, and the general public took note.
Since then, the heated, evolving debate on the subject of restitution has made its way into the spotlight. The latest:
If signed by Governor Gavin Newsom, a now-passed California state bill will grant all of the state’s indigenous tribes — including those not on the list of federally acknowledged tribes — ownership of ancestral “human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony” held by the state’s public institutions, including its notorious university archives. In theory, these claims are covered by a federal program enacted in 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), and its 2001 state counterpart. However, the preexisting laws only apply to federally recognized tribes, and many of California’s tribes — a whopping 55 of 165 — are excluded from the list. The bill, which has garnered bipartisan support, was introduced by Assemblymember James Ramos (Serrano/Cahuilla), the first Native American to be elected to the California state legislature.
One of the star lots in Sotheby’s “Rembrandt to Richter” July sale, Paolo Uccello’s “Battle on the Banks of a River, Probably the Battle of the Metaurus” (207 BCE), was revealed to be looted by Nazis. In 1942, persecuted Dutch banker and art collector Friedrich “Fritz” Gutmann was forced to sell the tempera-and-gold cassone panel painting to Adolf Hitler’s art dealer Julius Böhler. (Guttman would die in a concentration camp two years later.) When the Italian family selling the work at Sotheby’s learned of its tragic provenance, they reached out to Guttman’s grandson Simon Goodman — who had only seen the painting in a black-and-white photograph from the 1930s — and came to a settlement. The work sold for £2.41 million (~$3.1 million).
Earlier this summer, an amicable settlement was reached in the longstanding restitution case surrounding one of Jacopo del Sellaio’s most valuable devotional works, “Madonna and Child with the Young St John and Two Angels” (1480–85). Gustav Arens, a prominent Jewish financier and art collector in Vienna, purchased the panel painting in 1936, shortly before his death. When his daughter and heir Anna Arens Unger fled Austria during World War II, the Nazis plundered the family’s art collection. Major Turin collector Francesco Federico Cerruti (1922-2015), who was unaware of the painting’s history, purchased the work from an Italian dealer in 1987 and posthumously donated it to Turin’s Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea. The museum and the Cerruti Foundation located and compensated the heirs to the work, including 93-year-old Grete Unger Heinz, who loved the piece as a child. The painting will remain on view at the museum.
As restitution claims levied against public-facing institutions battle the various obstacles posed by law, bureaucracy, the market, and public opinion, individuals are quietly restituting looted African cultural objects from their private collections. These returned artifacts were typically acquired via inheritance. However, there have also been instances in which individuals or collectives have purchased objects with the intention of restituting them to their rightful owners. In comparison with public restitutions, the process of private restitution tends to be relatively swift. The private restitution model puts the onus on the present owner to seek out the wronged party, in contrast to public restitution, in which the onus has traditionally been on the claimant.