From left to right: Rick King, Judge Doty, Ericka Holmquist-Wall, Professor Cribari

From left to right: Rick King, Judge Doty, Ericka Holmquist-Wall, Professor Cribari

For centuries, many pieces of fine art and antiquities were considered the spoils of war or simply spirited away from their country of origin, only to land in museums, private collections or the auction block. But in the modern era where cultural preservation has taken center-stage, debates on museum ownership, artist’s rights and cultural preservation have arisen.

Last Thursday, Thomson Reuters and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) hosted “Who Owns Matisse,” a panel discussion on the intersection of art and law.

With the museum’s exhibit Matisse: Masterworks from the Baltimore Museum of Art as the backdrop for the evening, Rick King, Thomson Reuters COO of Technology, moderated a lively panel discussion with Judge David Doty, U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota; Professor Stephen Cribari, University of Minnesota Law School; and Ericka Holmquist-Wall, assistant curator, Paintings and Provenance Specialist, MIA.

Though the Matisse works at the MIA are not in dispute – the exhibit is on loan from the Baltimore Museum of Art’s Cone Collection – as Holmquist-Wall explained, it’s a common and complicated scenario to find disputed works in museums. Paintings, sculptures and other art objects are sourced by provenance documentation – a record of previous ownership and origin. At times during this arduous research process, works of art can be identified on databases of stolen art. While the legal process can help original owners or their families reclaim art, what happens with antiquities or cultural artwork?

“About 75 percent of the antiquities in every American museum [is] unsourced,” said Holmquist-Wall. While laws, such as the UNESCO 1970 Convention, prevents illicit trade in antiquities, museum curators and attorneys face a new set of complicated questions.

“What if you have a work that is claimed by the Hermitage [Museum in Russia]?” asked Cribari. “With what’s going on in the Ukraine, do you send it back?”

Cribari and Holmquist-Wall both noted that art curators, absent, or in some cases in spite of the law, rely on an obligation to protect art in the interest of the public trust.

“To any attorneys who want to get into this field, you will need to use your imagination,” said Cribari

While the discussion barely scratched the surface of this vast topic, in a humorous moment, King quipped: “I find it terribly ironic that Matisse was a lawyer.”

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