“The ethics are easy, but the situations are very, very complex,” museologist and art historian Patricia Bovey said at the start of her talk during the Critical Conversations series on The Idea of a Human Rights Museum. The director emeritus of the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG) explored wartime looting of art treasures, or spoliation, and the responsibility of museums and curators when confronting such material.

A curator is responsible for the development of a collection, researching the collection and the care and preservation of the collection. “No work may be considered for acquisition if there is any question of its current owner’s clear title,” asserts Bovey, and the same applies if a work is known to have been taken illegally from its country of origin. Thus, a big part of a curator’s job is to research the provenance of every single piece that comes into a museum, archive or art gallery.

Human rights figure into the ethics of art collecting and looting when you consider the impact on the rightful owner(s), especially if the work was taken under oppressive and violent circumstances. Such is the case with thousands of pieces of artwork stolen during the Second World War. Bovey gives the example of a painting by Raoul Dufy that came into the WAG during her time there. This piece had no historical record from 1933-1945, making its whereabouts during that time suspect. Fortunately, through meticulous research, the ownership of this work was traced and its record was found to be clean. However, the search for materials looted by Nazis during the war continues today. Materials being illegally desecrated, looted and exploited from ancient archeological sites in the Middle East also continue to turn up in the international art market. Curators of international collections, says Bovey, have a particular responsibility to understand the origins and history of the materials.

What about museums that have knowingly collected illicitly gained material, often from grave sites, excavations and the black market? The Getty Museum, for example, had purchased illicit material worth millions of dollars and eventually returned the works to their countries of origin. Interestingly, Bovey notes, many of the countries then entered into loan agreements with the museum that led to the creation of international collaborative relationships.

There are specific guidelines and ethical frameworks that a curator should follow when working to repatriate materials suspected of having been stolen, lost or spoliated. International registries and databases exist to track, report or register a claim for such works. Bovey says museums have value systems, ethics and codes along with “a very important role in upholding and promoting social justice…thus, taking in work that is looted or stolen is completely wrong.” She concluded that galleries and museums work in the public trust because visitors assume everything is properly acquired; therefore, ethical acquisition and repatriation is necessary to sustain that trust.


Are the creator/artist’s rights taken into consideration during repatriation or return by the legal system?

Once a gift has been given it passes into the ownership of the individual to whom it has been given. The moral rights regarding presentation of a work in Canada are only valid during the artist’s life and cease after the artist’s death.

During the Nazi era, forced sales of artwork also took place. How is that taken into consideration during research?

During the research for provenance, the seller and buyer are also considered carefully. For example, when sales catalogues were found for some of the material at the WAG from this era, the people who had placed the works into sale and the amount they had been sold for were also traced. The Nazis did not care how much money they got for the sale of some of the looted works, so price becomes an important factor and can indicate if a work was part of a forced sale.

What happens when no heirs or rightful owners of a stolen work can be found by the museum for the purposes of repatriation?

It is the museum’s responsibility to document that the research has found no living rightful owners of the piece as yet. This information should also be displayed with the piece. Museum ethics dictate that museums and galleries should be honest about what they have.

Audio podcasts of seminars in this series are also available.