# 60 | Pillages and Restitutions | Bénédicte Savoy

Through her fundamental work on the despoliation of artworks, Bénédicte Savoy reminds us that this has been an issue of importance for people’s memories since the time of Antiquity.  In fact, it already was such an issue in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon.  In the present text, Savoy brings out for us the recurring motifs in debates over seizures and restitutions and shows us that time does not soothe tensions but, rather, exacerbates them.  In this respect, the arts are hand in glove with many other things they embody—a sort of precipitate of history.

Laurence Bertrand Dorléac

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Restitutions and Emotions: A Few Reflections for a long-Term Approach

Bénédicte Savoy

Paris, February 2009: The Grand Palais was the theater for an event that galvanized the art world, and which the international press described as the “sale of the century.”  This sale involved the legendary collection of Yves Saint-Laurent and his companion, Pierre Bergé, as part of a spectacular show.  A polemic, it will nevertheless be recalled, came to sully this glamorous financial fairy tale.  The People’s Republic of China (in a way, the wicked witch in the story) demanded the restitution of two eighteenth-century bronzes that had disappeared in 1860 during the pillaging of the Peking Summer Palace by French and British troops.  Bergé refused to return the incriminating objects and demanded, by way of compensation, freedom for Tibet.  One-hundred-and-forty-nine years after the pillaging of the Summer Palace, that response—which, it will be granted, was hardly adroit but highly French (given France’s claim to be the land of liberty and therefore of the arts)—unleashed the ire and indignation of the Chinese press.  This highly topical example reminds us that the victims of despoliations of artworks have long memories and that the wounds occasioned by the experience of dispossession do not easily close back up.  The point here is not to describe the plundering and restitution of artworks as some kind of anthropological constant since Antiquity.  It is a matter, rather, of sketching out, in the small amount of space allotted, certain motifs that recur in debates over seizures and restitutions of artworks.

Justice and Vengeance: Losses Viewed Long Term

In Germany, in particular, spotlights have been trained for a decade and a half on artworks seized by the USSR during World War II, on controversies surrounding the restitution of museum pieces plundered from Jewish families, and on lively and regularly recurring discussions about the repatriation of book and manuscript collections evacuated during the War on territories now belonging to the Polish State.  All this confirms to what extent the annexation of cultural goods in times of war generates collective emotions that do not easily fade away.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  Instead of calming tensions, the passage of time seems to exacerbate them.  And instead of drawing the parties closer together, the passage of time seems to produce bitter determination and distrust.  The issue of forced transfers of artworks—and not just those that occurred during World War II—certainly constitutes one of the major stakes in world cultural politics in the twenty-first century.  Now, what is amazing to note is that often people are unaware of the historical depth of the subject, even though several recent publications, and especially a series of exhibitions in Paris, Stockholm, Moscow, and other cities, have contributed new elements. [1] As early as Antiquity, the themes of vengeance and restitution of works of art and of worship seized in times of war play a key role in literature. [2] In Agamemnon for example, the first part of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, reference is made in a general sort of way to the dangers faced by those who rob objects of worship and other people’s goods.  At the start of the play, Clytemnestra warns the victor against the grave consequences that would obtain if one pillaged the treasures of Troy.  The message is clear: If the victors, not content with their triumph, fail to respect the temples of the vanquished and instead indulge in raids, they will suffer the vengeance of the gods.  The cultural value of coveted objects is here of central importance.  When stolen, these personifications of gods will take it upon themselves to wreak vengeance or will entrust a powerful mortal with the task of repatriating them.  The time of men gives way to the eternity of the gods.  This is why remembrance of a sacrilegious theft by a foreign hand will be maintained and transmitted from generation to generation.
One may legitimately ask oneself about the connection between these ancient configurations—where the cultural value of misappropriated objects is foregrounded—and the modern despoilment of objects that have been confiscated and transferred to another place because of their artistic, aesthetic, and certainly also economic value.  The analogy between these different forms of theft, which one hesitates to link from a historical standpoint, becomes apparent when one looks into the iconography (more than the discourse) that transmits them to us, the memory and emotions tied to the deeds quite often being established more forcefully by visual schemas and by their power of suggestion than by supporting texts.

Iconography of Displacements

One of the oldest and most eloquent bits of iconographic testimony regarding transfers of heritage works in Antiquity is certainly the bas-relief from the passageway of the Arch of Titus in Rome representing the arrival in Rome of the treasures from the Temple of Jerusalem. [3]  Approximately eighteen centuries later, in 1813, Napoleonic France offered a reminder of this Roman iconography: Dominique-Vivant Denon commissioned a magnificent ceremonial vase in Sèvres porcelain that served to illustrate the constancy of recourse to iconographic language when broaching the theme of the seizure of artworks, and this despite a change in the role of art and a new rhetoric of legitimation.  The reference to the bas-relief from the Arch of Titus is obvious—with the exception, however, of one important detail: whereas the ancient cortege passed beneath a triumphal arch dedicated to the emperor, the modern confiscators pass through the doors of a museum, on which is inscribed, at left, “Napoleon Museum” and, at right, “Museum.”  The triumph of the young institution could not be clearer.  The translatio imperii (which, here, is also a translatio studii) was certainly being carried out, at the time of the Empire, for the benefit of a large bourgeois public and not of a sovereign, yet the image itself lays out the motif of imperial triumph.  The museum serves as sort of a verbal excuse.  By harking back to Roman Antiquity, the image celebrates the triumph of power.  Other, more recent examples of iconographic representations of restitutions play upon similar moods and associations. [4]

It is therefore also through their visual and symbolic representation that the themes of triumph and the humiliation of the dispossessed enter into collective consciousness.  The fact that, during Antiquity, the victims were wounded in their religious identity and that, ca. 1800, the men of the Enlightenment were wounded in their cosmopolitan identity—since they saw in art a cross-border means of receiving education and achieving progress—does not play a key role here.  Since the late eighteenth century, art had in any case become the object of a secularized religion whose temples were museums.  More than the cultural or educational value of stolen artworks, it has been, since Antiquity, their transgenerational value that grounds their identity.  This, among other factors, explains the persistence of the emotions triggered by their loss.

Within this context, it is interesting to note that we have known, as early as the fourth century B.C.E., of spectacular restitutions of art objects seized and then ceded back after several decades, indeed sometimes several centuries.[5] There is no need to elaborate at length upon the stakes involved in such restitutions, in their staging, and in their establishment through narratives or images: in giving back art objects and object of worship that had been annexed in times of war, new sovereigns demonstrated to what extent they were concerned with the interests of their new subjects and were appealing, in return, for their loyalty.  These kinds of political restitutions of cultural goods are one of the main constants in the history of seizures of art objects, from Antiquity to the twentieth century, passing by way of the Napoleonic Era.

Restitutions, Emotions, Administration

And yet, if we look for a moment into the history of failures of restitution, we may ask what emotions were manifested in particular among those (whether military men, administrators, or scholars) who over the centuries have been charged with the responsibility of lodging complaints that have not met with success.  For art historians, museum workers, and librarians, direct involvement in political life has never been easy—particularly when one’s scholarly work was to have or could have had concrete political consequences.  The celebrated Jacob Grimm has undoubtedly furnished the finest example of the discomfort created when a famous scholar engages in such an undertaking.[6] Charged in 1815 with the mission of recovering some manuscripts seized from Rhenish libraries by revolutionary France, Grimm noted, in a letter to his brother:

It’s unpleasant for me, personally, to claim these works: there is, in itself, something nasty about sniffing about and upsetting an established order, because I find myself faced with people who used to receive me politely and courteously. . . .  I would have preferred not to have been used for this job.[7].

One hundred years later, during World War I, this theme once again played a major role in museum and library circles.[8] At the time, upon the order of the Prussian Minister of Culture, a number of civil servants undertook some research into confiscations carried out during the Napoleonic era.  More than a century had passed, but time had erased nothing.  For these museum curators and librarians of 1915, as well as for Jacob Grimm one hundred years earlier and for the victims of twentieth-century despoliations, access to sources constitutes the great methodological challenge.  Taking into account the asymmetry in interests—the “victims” wanting to know, the “guilty” keeping the information secret—it was a matter, in 1915, of obtaining reliable data about the reality of these loses.  Thus, the librarian Hermann Degering, who was put in charge of research at the Berlin Staatsbibliothek into the removal of books by the French ca. 1800, noted:

If we could have access in Paris to the dossiers relating to this issue, we would have therefrom a much clearer, more  detailed view than we have today.  We are in effect, given the incomplete character of the archival documentation, thus reduced to proceeding, in major areas, by way of analogies and assumptions.[9]

These kinds of piercing doubts are precisely the ones that ensure that the issues surrounding the despoliations of artworks have always been, and remain still today, a breeding ground for one legend after another.

A New Artistic Geography and the European Civilizational Project

In the German-language States, the restitutions of 1815 prompted sometimes lively discussions about the way in which the cultural geography of Germany, and even of Europe as a whole, needed to be reconfigured after the maximum degree of centralization of the European cultural heritage that occurred in Paris under Napoleon.  In 1814, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was solicited by the Prussian government to express his opinion about the distribution of goods recovered after Napoleon’s fall from power: Should one now concentrate artworks in a single spot or disperse them over the entire territory?  For Goethe, quoted here by the collector Sulpiz Boissérée, “Artworks and ancient monuments are to be dispersed as much as possible, and each town is to retain or recover what belongs to it.”[10]

With this position, Goethe—and he was not the only one, ca. 1815, to plead for a wide “dispersion” of works—was certainly going against the grain of the nineteenth century, which would gradually increase the centralization of one’s heritage works—henceforth considered “national” in character—within a few monumental museums situated in capital cities.  If one thinks of the artworks that disappeared from German museums in 1945 and that are to be found today in far-off provincial museums of the former USSR, one sees that this discussion remains quite topical.  It is a discussion that had in fact been raised in the patriotic newspaper Rheinischer Merkur as early as August 1815: “As regards art, it is the dispersion of works, as in a starry sky, that is genuinely invigorating and reinvigorating, whereas heaping them together leads only to exuberant aesthetic luxuriousness.”[11]

By Way of a Conclusion

  In 1816, Goethe devoted four lines, since become famous, to the question of displacements of heritage works: “You were sending out, this way and that, paintings/lost and acquired/and of these convoys heading in all directions/what remains for us?  A waste.”[12]  From this quatrain to the oft-quoted letter by Victor Hugo about the sack of the Peking Summer Palace, there is but a single step:

One day two bandits entered the Summer Palace. One plundered, the other burned. Victory can be a thieving woman, or so it seems. The devastation of the Summer Palace was accomplished by the two victors acting jointly. . . .  We Europeans are the civilized ones, and for us the Chinese are the barbarians.  This is what civilization has done to barbarism.[13]

 Whether the formulation be poetic (1816) or polemical (1861), whether the anthropological constancy of the issue manifests itself in an iconographic or administrative mode, it must be granted that the preoccupations of our ancestors with regard to transfers of artworks in contexts of asymmetrical relations of force (including, therefore, during the colonial era) are also our own: it is always the same for the arts and for their preservation in keeping with the idea of humanity and civilization.


[1] Catalogues d’exposition actuels : Pierre Rosenberg, Marie-Anne Dupuy (éd.), Dominique-Vivant Denon, L’œil de Napoléon, cat. exp., Paris, 1999 ; Sigrun Paas, Sabine Mertens (éd.), Beutekunst unter Napoleon, cat. exp., Mayence, 2003 ; Wilfried Menghin (éd.), Merowingerzeit – Europa ohne Grenzen. Archäologie und Geschichte des 5. bis 8. Jahrhunderts, cat. exp., Wolfratshausen, 2007 ; Ann Grönhammar (éd.), Krigsbyte = War-Booty, cat.exp., Stockholm, 2007 ; Isabelle le Masne de Chermont, Laurence Sigal-Klagsbald (éd.), A qui appartenaient ces tableaux ?, cat. exp., Paris, 2008 ; Inka Bertz, Michael Dorrmann (éd.), Raub und Restitution. Kulturgut aus jüdischem Besitz von 1933 bis heute, cat. exp., Berlin, 2008.
Sur la dimension historique des saisies d’œuvres d’art, voir : Bénédicte Savoy, Patrimoine annexé, 2 tomes, Paris, 2003 ; Christina Kott, Préserver l’art de l’ennemi ? – le patrimoine artistique en Belgique et en France occupées, 1914-1918, Paris, 2006 ; Christoph Roolf, « Die Forschungen des Kunsthistorikers Ernst Steinmann zum Napoleonischen Kunstraub zwischen Kulturgeschichtsschreibung, Auslandspropaganda und Kulturgutraub im Ersten Weltkrieg », in Ernst Steinmann, Der Kunstraub Napoleons, 1916. Yvonne Dohna (éd.) (http://edoc.biblhertz.it/editionen/steinmann/kunstraub/), Rome, 2007.

[2] Volker Michael Strocka, “Kunstraub in der Antike,” in Volker Michael Strocka, ed., Kunstraub–ein Siegerrecht? Historische Fälle und juristische Einwände (Berlin: Arenhövel, 1999), pp. 9-26.

[3]  See Bénédicte Savoy, “Kunstraub,” in Martin Warnke, Uwe Fleckner, and Hendrik Ziegler, eds, Handbuch der politischen Ikonographie, vol. 2 (Munich: Beck, 2009).

[4] Ibid.

[5] See Strocka, 1999.

[6] Bénédicte Savoy, 2003, vol. 1, chap. 7.

[7] Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Briefwechsel. Kritische Ausgabe, vol. 1, Heinz Rölleke, ed. (Stuttgart: S. Hirzel Verlag, 2001), p. 461.  See Bénédicte Savoy, 2003, vol. 1, p. 259-60.

[8] See Christina Kott, Préserver l’art de l’ennemi? Le patrimoine artistique en Belgique et en France occupées, 1914-1918 (Brussels: Peter Lang P.I.E., 2006);  Bénédicte Savoy, “Krieg, Wissenschaft und Recht. Die Erinnerung an Napoleons Kunstraub um 1915”, in Osteuropa, 56:1-2 (2006), a thematic issue on “Kunst und Kultur im Schatten des Krieges”; Bénédicte Savoy, “Barbaren sind immer die anderen,” in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, November 19, 2007; Roolf, 2007.

[9] Undated report by Degering, Berlin, Staatsbibliothek Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Manuscript Department, NL, Degering, ungeordneter Rest.  See Bénédicte Savoy, 2003, p. 305.

[10] Sulpiz Boissérée, Tagebücher 1808-1854 (Darmstadt: Eduard Roether Verlag, 1978-1995), vol. 1, p. 224; see Bénédicte Savoy, 2003, vol. 1, p. 255.

[11] Rheinischer Merkur, 279 (August 6, 1815), p. 2, col. 1. See Bénédicte Savoy 2003, vol. 1, p. 255.

[12] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Museen,” in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Werke, Weimar 1887-1919 (Weimarer Ausgabe), vol. 3, p. 121.

[13] Victor Hugo, Actes et paroles, vol. 2, Pendant l’Exil I, 1853-1861 (Paris, 1875), p. 208. English translation: “The Sack of the Summer Palace,” The Courier (UNESCO), 11 (November 1985): 15. http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0006/000669/066943eo.pdf


CUNO, James. Ed. Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012.

KOTT, Christina. Préserver l’art de l’ennemi? Le patrimoine artistique en Belgique et en France occupées, 1914-1918. Brussels: Peter Lang P.I.E., 2006.

LE MASNE DE CHERMONT, Isabelle, and SIGAL-KLAGBALD, Laurence. Eds. À qui appartenaient ces tableaux? Exhibition catalogue. Paris: Réunion des Museées Nationaux, 2008.

PARZINGER, Hermann. Archäologie und Politik—Eine Wissenschaft und ihr Weg zum kulturpolitischen Global Player. Münster: Rhema, 2012.

Bénédicte Savoy, a former student at the École Normale Supérieure (Fontenay) who holds a teaching degree in German, is a professor of Art History at the Berlin Institute of Technology.  Her work bears principally on the history of transfers of artworks within Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and on forced transfer of artworks in times of war and during the colonial era.  Her main publications on the subject are: Patrimoine annexé. Les biens culturels saisis par la France en Allemagne autour de 1800, preface by Pierre Rosenberg, 2 vols (Paris: Éditions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme/“Passages/Passagen,” 2003).  German translation: Kunstraub. Napoleons Konfiszierungen in Deutschland und die europäischen Folgen (Vienna: Böhlau, 2010); Nofretete, eine deutsch-französische Affäre, 1913-1931 (Cologne: Böhlau, 2011).














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