The Venus de Milo is Missing
Yes. From Greece. The famous statue without arms was found on the Greek island of Melos in the 1800s and ended up in Paris as one of the premier attractions in the Louvre Museum. Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire and the Turks didn't care what happened to Greek works of art. They used the Parthenon as an ammunition dump and a target. Lord Elgin, the British Ambassador to Istanbul, rescued the sculptures that adorned the Parthenon and they (the 'Elgin Marbles') now sit in the British Museum.
Should the Greeks get them back? Should Benin get its royal throne room back, which also sits in the British Museum? What about the Babylonian treasures resting in Berlin? Should the Iraqi government get them back?
A woman in New York has sued to recover a Van Gogh stolen from her by the Nazis in 1944. The painting is on the auction block at Sotheby's, having disappeared for almost fifty years. A court will decide whether she should get it back. In England, Parliament has repealed the exemption in the law for the Thieves' Market, which has existed in London for almost five hundred years. It seems this was the only place a thief could give you good title. A famous Dutch painting, which had been gone for a number of years, turned up there. Some one bought it. The owner sued to get it back, but since it was purchased at the Thieves' Market, he lost. Parliament repealed the ancient exception. The painting was worth millions, and the art thieves were using the Market to launder stolen art.
What about the Caravaggio recently discovered hanging on the wall of a monastery in Ireland? It's valued at $33 million. In this case, the theft (if there was one) is probably hundreds of years old. The monks have loaned it to the Museum in Dublin. Why didn't they give it to the Museum? Probably because they heard about another case in New York. One of the museums in the Big Apple wants to reduce its collection (Deaccessing they call it - isn't English great?). But the heirs of the donors are complaining that their ancestors didn't donate their collections to the Museum to have them resold to private buyers. Maybe the monks are smarter than they appear.
So what happens if your Titian disappears off the wall in your dining room one night, and you find it at the local museum three years later? Who owns it? After all, the museum will claim they paid top dollar for it. The law in most jurisdictions is that a thief cannot convey good title. There are exceptions, but these are generally limited to conduct on the part of the owner that allowed the fraudulent transfer to take place. If your Titian is stolen, you should get it back. The lady in New York should also recover her Van Gogh. The Elgin Marbles and the Venus de Milo? They'll probably stay where they are.
The author is a local attorney specializing in Intellectual Property law and can be reached at LawEur@aol.com.