Successes and Failures of Self-Regulatory Regimes Governing Museum Holdings of Nazi-Looted Art and Looted Antiquities

Thompson, Erin

American museums have long recognized that their collections sometimes include two categories of artwork whose prior owners parted with the pieces unwillingly: Nazi-looted art and illicitly exported archaeological objects. The relevant industry associations—the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors—have promulgated self-regulatory regimes that purport to ensure that museums return any objects to their rightful owners when they do not hold good title. However, the success of these regimes has varied widely based on whether the artwork is an archaeological antiquity or a Nazi-looted piece. This Article identifies the ways in which the regimes and the contexts in which they were created diverge. It argues that museums dealing with looted antiquities require outside scrutiny and internal convergence of opinion, elements present in the effective self-regulatory regime surrounding Nazi-looted art. These factors would assure the compliance that is lacking in antiquities regimes, which have little outside scrutiny and are fraught with extreme differences in opinion within the museum community as to how to solve the problem, or whether there is a problem at all.

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Columbia Journal of Law & the Arts

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July 24, 2015