Who owns art?

Who Owns Art? Blog

One piece of good news in San Francisco this week was the announcement of the reopening of the San Francisco Museum

Atrium of S.F. Museum of Modern Art
Atrium of S.F. Museum of Modern Art

of Modern Art scheduled for May 14, 2016. According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, the new museum, which has been under renovation for three years, will be the country’s largest museum of modern art.

While art lovers are waiting expectantly to see the new building and new collections, they may ponder whether any of the art displayed will cause a controversy like those that have caused problems for so many museum. For the most part, modern art pieces have not been around long enough to inspire questions about who made them. And in future there may be even fewer fears about forgeries and mis-attributions if a new scientific technique for giving art pieces permanent DNA markers comes into common use. Martin Tenniswood, a lead scientist on the project, spoke on NPR (National Public Radio) about the technique which will be able to put a tag on individual art works that clearly identify it. Just as the DNA of a person cannot be faked, so too this marker should end the fears of collectors and museums that they might purchase a forgery.

Historically, of  course, it is not only forgeries that have caused trouble. There is also the ongoing arguments about whether Western museums have the right to collect and display the art of indigenous people, and whether the urge to protect art in

Elgin Marbles in the British Museum
Elgin Marbles in the British Museum

war-torn countries is justified. One of the first acts that started these arguments was the removal of the Elgin marbles from Greece to England. Next year will mark the 200th anniversary of the sale of the Elgin marbles to the British government. They are one of the major attractions of the British Museum and are seen every year by more than five million people.

If you want to read a fascinating account of the background of how the Elgin marbles were purchased by Lord Elgin, using the money of his extremely wealthy Scottish wife, and shipped to England at least in part because Lady Elgin was able to use her charms to persuade the Sultan of Turkey as well as the British Navy to help her, I strongly recommend the book Mistress of the Elgin Marbles by Susan Nagel. A series of events, helped along by a clash of personalities, led Lord Elgin to appreciate the value of the marbles, but eventually also to the breakup of his marriage. Would Britain ever have owned the marbles if Lady Elgin hadn’t rebelled after bearing five children and declaring that she refused to suffer through another childbirth? Would Lord Elgin have agreed with his wife’s wishes if he hadn’t been driven by the desire to have enough sons to ensure his name was carried on? Today as we look at the marbles, unchanging and austere in their dedicated gallery, we can think about the human passions that led to their being available for our viewing. But the arguments about whether or not they should be returned to Greece continue to rumble on.

Perhaps we will never settle the question of who has the right to own and display art. Is it better to have art preserved, even

Destruction of ancient Art
Destruction of ancient Art

far from the place of its origin, or to let it remain unmoved no matter how challenging the circumstances of its homeland? Does art belong to all people in the world who take care to preserve and maintain it, or should it remain with the group who created it no matter whether it is destroyed or not? That is a very difficult question to answer. Who has the right to judge?

5 thoughts on “Who owns art?

  1. Adele,
    Difficult issues and questions. And virtual technology doesn’t answer all of them.
    Thanks for another thoughtful

    • They are difficult questions, aren’t they, Barbara? I suppose technology could help in make near-perfect reproductions available in different places. But it’s not quite the same. Maybe someday we’ll have complete virtual reality and we won’t feel any difference between originals and copies..

  2. Have to say, this is a question I’ve been asking myself, especially the last few years as extremists destroy the remains of ancient civilizations. My personal opinion is that in the 21st century, where preservationists step in to prevent this from happening, usually their motives are above board, unlike the out and out thieves of the 19th and 20th centuries. Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Adele.

    • I’m glad you agree, Melissa. It’s not an easy question. We Westerners have a lot to answer for in the treasures that were stolen in the past, but it is painful to see irreplaceable objects being destroyed.

  3. This is another fascinating and thoughtful post! As usual, you bring reason to bear on a subject that is often obscured by violent emotion. Bravo!


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