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Returning Looted Artworks

Written by Cecile Fabre, April 2015


In 1999, Maria Altman, who had fled Austria in 1938 following the Anschluss with Germany, filed a lawsuit against the Austrian government. Her claim was that five paintings by Gustav Klimt, had been looted by the Nazis from her uncle before falling into the possession of the Austrian authorities, and that these ought to be returned to her as the rightful heir. Two of the paintings included portraits of her aunt. The Austrians initially refused to take her request seriously but eventually gave in after several dramatic legal twists and turns.[1]

This story is now on our cinema screens under the title A Woman in Gold, with Helen Mirren in the starring role. The ending is clearly meant to be regarded as a happy one: after all, Altman does get the painting back. And, generally, many think that stolen or plundered works of art ought to be returned to those from whom they were taken, or their heirs.

I do not think that those legal claims are supported by what I and other cosmopolitans regard as a plausible theory of justice – whereby all individuals, wherever they reside in the world, have rights to the resources needed for a flourishing life, and hold those rights not just against their compatriots but also against well-off distant strangers. At the bar of justice, the well-off are under obligations to do far more than they are currently doing – obligations which they could and should discharge by paying more taxes both on what they currently earn and own and on what they receive from their forebears. The theory also implies that extant property holdings are unjust – resulting as they do from past generations’ failure to meet their obligations of justice.

So what about restitutive claims made by the heirs of those who had artwork dispossessed by the Nazis? Those claims are often blocked on the grounds that claimants would not exist but for the fact that their ancestors were wronged. A refugee from the Nazis, who subsequently had children, would not have had these very same children had this upheaval in their life not have occurred. Interestingly, the objection is unlikely to work for all claimants in the case of looted artwork. Some heirs (indeed, Altman herself) were already born then. And even when it is true of some claimants that they would not exist but for the war during which the looting took place, it is not plausible to say that none of them would exist but for the act of looting itself.

And yet there are good reasons, grounded in considerations of justice, for resisting those restitutive claims. For under no plausible description of the world as it stood in 1939 can it be held that it was a just world – a world, that is, where all individuals, wherever they reside, enjoyed the basic necessities of life. To bring about a just world then would have required heavier taxation and considerably more stringent restrictions on inheritance than were in fact imposed. The wealthy – those who were able to acquire (or commission) paintings – did not have a legitimate title to their monetary resources and thus did not have a legitimate title to what they acquired with it (any more than I have a morally legitimate title to a painting I buy thanks to money I have stolen from you.) If the war-time possessor was not in fact the painting’s rightful owner, nor are his heirs. Moreover, even if he was the rightful owner, there are reasons to doubt that his heirs are. For under no plausible description of the world as it has stood since 1939 may we say that it has been a just world, for exactly the same reasons as given above.

The general point, then, is this: there are very good, justice-based reasons to think that the descendants of those from whom those objects were taken are not the rightful owners of those artefacts. Importantly, it does not follow that looters’ descendants are entitled to hold on to those objects. For the claim that someone is not the rightful owner of a good g does not imply that g may be forcibly taken away from him, or withheld from him, by whomever so wishes: Austrian and German combatants who, either acting individually in a private capacity or collectively under the authority of their leadership, forcibly seized enemy property wrongfully held on to those resources instead of using them to bring about a just, or less unjust, world. In so far as they clearly were not those objects’ rightful owners, nor are their descendants.

What, then, are we to do?

It seems to me that there are two different solutions to this problem. On the one hand, one could envisage a global redistribution of stolen art works away from the art-rich towards the art-poor. Of the five paintings at the heart of Altman’s case, one was bought for $135 million with the help of a wealthy philanthropist by the Neue Gallery in Manhattan. But Manhattan is awash with great art; many places around the world are not. Access to art is (I believe) a component of a flourishing life; moreover, evidence suggests that engagement with the arts contributes to improving the socio-economic prospects of deprived populations.[2] The cash donation and the painting could have been put to better use, from the point of view of justice.

On the other hand, one could also envisage a system whereby artefacts which have been wrongfully taken away from a wrongful de facto possessor are sold to the highest bidder, with the proceeds to go either to the relief of world-wide poverty or to a global reparations and reconstruction fund for countries torn by war. Although access to art is important in the ways just suggested, access to the basic necessities of life is more urgent, which suggests that the latter solution is to be preferred to the former so long as there still are individuals in the world who are dying of thirst and starvation. The other four paintings were sold to private collectors. I do not know what the Altman’s family did with the proceeds of the sales. In any event, I am not convinced at all that A Woman in Gold does have a happy ending.


[1] See for details of the case.

[2] See, e.g.,

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6 Comment on this post

  1. “For under no plausible description of the world as it stood in 1939 can it be held that it was a just world – a world, that is, where all individuals, wherever they reside, enjoyed the basic necessities of life.”

    As I understand the argument of this piece it would surely apply not only to the heirs of looted artworks but to any heir of any wealth.

    If we apply this argument and the proposed solution to stolen artworks then why not to all inheritance since 1939, or before?

    1. I was thinking exactly that. Why bring up this radical argument up when discussing artworks in particular and not the whole concept on inheritance? It’s not wrong, per se, but it does seem odd.

      I also wonder how this argument would work when talking about restitution of land that was forcibly taken from Native populations.

      Some (not me!) would argue that some of these Native people were ‘wrongful posessors’ because they did not utilize land as efficiently as the ‘civilized’ colonists.
      Of course, I understand land is quite a different from artworks, but the thought still came to mind.

      Also, I wonder: would Cecile apply the ‘wrongful owner, wrongful heirs’ argument apply even to artworks that had been produced by the owner themselves perhaps with the specific intent to pass them off to their heirs?

      I find the thought to be particularly absurd. What would the justification be, in this case? That one’s own ancestors may have made something and want oneself, as their (distant, perhaps)heir to own it, but it is ‘better for society’ for the item to be publicly owned and put in a museum?

  2. This is an interesting blog post, and I enjoyed reading it. That said, I’m not sure I agree with the claim you’re making. The argument you’re making (as I understand it) seems much too strong. Given that we don’t live in an entirely just society even now, it seems to follow that all kinds of hereditary wealth is wrong and shouldn’t be allowed? That seems to me like ‘communism through the back door’, but of course, that might be your intention?

  3. I don’t think strong cosmopolitanism is very tenable (David Miller makes some nice arguments against it). It seems to me the grandest imperialist/colonial adventure of them all – it would, of necessity, squash all value pluralism, and destroy all existing, brokered arrangements (the mixed systems of private property rights, public goods provision, representative democracy, mixtures of freedom and obligations we currently enjoy, and so on), making all those existing happy, sustainable* states the servants of unhappy, unsustainable states. It’s just a bad, unjust, shallow tyrannical idea.

    *The Fragile States index uses the word “sustainable” to describe the least fragile states.

  4. Thanks for the post, I’m very sympathetic to the cosmopolitan worldview you express.

    However, it seems to me it is least plausible when it comes to something like art. In particular, you mention that two of the paintings were of Altman’s aunt. It seems to me she may have strong personal reasons for wanting to possess these objects, that are not easily understood from a redistributive lens. The connections we have to our family members, including possibly remembrances and mementos, are not the kind of good that we are obligated to redistribute.

    Obviously, the case is more complicated when the paintings are extremely monetarily valuable. But if one of my siblings were to become very famous, perhaps my childhood photo albums, with many unique photographs of them, would also be able to fetch a strong market price. It does seem to me that, even if I am as a strong egalitarian, that my reasons to redistribute necessarily outweigh my reasons for wanting to keep objects of sentiment. If I were to sell it (or if Altman were to profit off the paintings), then of course the money because susceptible to taxation, redistribution, etc.

    You might say people shouldn’t care about such things as much, and that we are overly sentimental about objects in place of people. There might be a good argument there, but it does not simply follow from an acceptance of cosmopolitan obligation.

  5. Thanks for those comments…a few things in brief. First I agree that the argument questions inheritance in general. The reason why I focus on this case is that it regularly appears in the news, and that I was only given 1000 words. I should say incidentally that being very strongly sceptical of inheritance does not implies a communisteSecond commit ment t’oublie ownership of the means of production. Second I agree that objects with sentimental value pose more difficulties than I was able to address in a short post. What I find interesting about art however is that it is a public good. When an object of art is treated as such by the claimant, as was the case here since Mrs Altmaspn did not after all keep it at her home or in a secure vault, then it is appropriate to raise the ethical question of how it should be made available. This partly underpins my “Why in Manhattan?’ question.
    Third the kind of cosmopolitanism -or cosmopolitan justice – I defend in some of my writings is not as inimical to value pluralism as one might think. Nor does it entail breaking up all existing arrangements. Justice after all is not the only value that there is.
    Finally I need to think more about the case where the owner is also the artist and wants her children to get the works, etc. On this point: whenPicasso died his children were slapped with an enormous inheritance tax bill. In lieu of payment they gave the French state the pick of the entire collection (which was in their hands). This is what you see at the Picasso Museum in Paris. Suppose they had said: ‘we cannot pay, and so will declare ourselves bankrupt rather than give you a single one of the paintings.’ It would not have been unjust on my account for the state to say ‘well, in that case we will requisition in works of art the equivalent of what you owe’ – even Picasso himself had expressly and explicitly said that he wanted his children to keep the whole of it.

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