A panel discussion held Monday evening at the Marshall-Wythe School of Law entitled “All is Fair in Art and War,” focused on armed conflict.
“Cultural property often equates to our national identity… If you think about symbols of our republic, the Statue of Liberty, the World Trade Center, when people decide to attack those it goes beyond just loss of life, its a loss of part of our identity, part of our culture,” Marion Werkeiser, an attorney and former professor at the Law School said.
Werkeiser also cited recent examples to emphasize the importance of cultural property, showing a picture of a human chain in front of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, trying to protect the museum from being looting during the unrest.
She also discussed international law to try to prevent the destruction of cultural property, the 1954 Hague Convention being, she said “the first international attempt to deal with cultural property in times of war.”
Thomas Kline moved from talking about the importance of cultural objects to the purposefulness groups have in destroying them.
“[Removing cultural objects] can change memories and can change history,” Kline said.
After citing the atrocious human suffering the Nazis created, he cited the Holocaust as not only being murderous but a great theft.
“[The Nazis were] trying to destroy other cultures that they deem inferior.” Kline said. It wasn’t something that just happened, it wasn’t accidental, it was policy and program.”
Ambassador Pavlos Anastasiades, the American Ambassador to Cyprus, built on this point by saying that removing cultural property is a form of ethnic cleansing. He discussed the 1974 invasion of Cyprus by Turkey where he said there was a “cleansing of historic and religious signs.”
“The heritage and an identity, that was made up of an 11,000 year old history of the Island, was put in jeopardy over the course of a only few years,” Anastasiades said.
He put the issue in a more global perspective as well.
“It would be truly a shame to let part of the world’s civilization perish due to the acts of one country. When we talk about the capture of cultural property of one state, we are talking about part of the world’s heritage,” Anastasiades said.
Dr. Allan Gerson emphasized the implications of looting cultural property long after armed conflict. He is currently representing a Russian family whose artwork was looted during the Bolshevik Revolution. Pieces of his artwork, according to Soviet law, became their property due to the 1918 nationalization decree, and were later sold to both Yale as well as the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Gerson is part of the legal case to help the Russian family reclaim their artwork, where he will, in essence, have to dispute the validity of the Soviet claim saying that they rightfully owned the artwork.
“The larger issue at stake in the MET case and the Yale case and all cases generally where they are against a government is how we want to weight the balance between the interests of governments in having non interference of their affairs and the interests of individuals,” Gerson said. “I am betting is that the rights of the individual will surpass the rights of the state.”