Risks for artworks during war

March 15, 2022

In the past hundreds of years multiple wars have created substantial damage to the many cities, homes and lives. Now, the conflict between Ukraine and Russia has reached a new phase and a beforehand cold war now turned into an outrageous military invasion. These actions mean many lives to be lost, families torn apart and substantial parts of culture to disappear. To explain the impact actions of war have on the art world we want to look at current and past examples, where monuments and museums are destroyed, and  artworks are taken away from their legitimate owners.

Potential risks during a war

The major risks during a war for artworks are spoiling caused by the invador, direct destruction through bombs or the artworks transport towards a safer place. 

Spoiling: Adele Bloch-Bauer painting, was stolen by the Nazis and recovered by a decendent of the family owner through litigation

Gustav Klimt’s portrait of Adele Block-Bauer from 1907 is his most famous painting.

In 1903 the sugar-rediner Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer employed Gustav Klimt to create a painting of his wife Adele. The completion took four years in total. Adele is displayed surrounded by a golden wreath covered in ornaments. She is also wearing expensive jewellery including diamonds and a dress covered in gold. Klimt makes use of African, Asian, Byzantine and Egyptian references.

The painting caused a long lasting lawsuit due to Adele Bloch-Bauers announcing in her last will to bequeath all her Klimt artworks to the Austrian gallery in Belvedere. Therefore the republic of Austria regarded themselves as the rightful owner. Though Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer stated that his wife was not the rightful owner of the painting, rather himself. Especially since most of his owned pictures were confiscated during the Nazis-Regime he did want to keep this one for himself. He announced that his two nieces and nephew should receive all of his belongings. Though the Nazis disguised the rightful ownership of the painting and decided to display it in the galery Belvedere. In 2006 Austrian officials decided that the painting had to be returned to the rightful owner, the niece of Ferdinand Maria Altmann. In the same year she sold it to Ronald Lauder for 135 Million US Dollars which was the highest price ever paid for a painting up until then. 

Direct destruction: The burning of the Ivankic Historical and Local History Museum

During the invasion of Russian forces in Ivankiv, the local history museum was burnt down in February 2022, twenty artworks of the artist Maria Prymachenko were located inside the building. According to The Times, ten of the paintings were saved by a local man entering the museum while it was in flames. 

Maria Oksentiyivna Prymacheno was an Urkrainian folk self-taught art painter who also worked on embroidery and ceramics. UNESCO dedicated the year 2009 to her and Pablo Picasso announced “I bow down before the artistic miracle of this villiant Ukrainian.” after visiting one of her exhibitions.

The inflaming by the Russian forces led to Ukraine calling for UNESCO to end Russia's membership in the organisation. This has not been the only incident of the Federation causing damage to the cultural heritage objects and it is expected for many more to follow. 

Transport: The Hermitage Museum evacuation

The Hermitage Museum is located in St. Petersburg, Russia. It was opened in 1764 by Catherine the Great and has been open to the public since 1852. It now holds three million items which include paintings, works of graphic art, sculptures, works of applied art and numismatics.

Even before the Second World War started the director of the Hermitage Museum Joseph Abgarovich Oberli began to prepare for a possible evacuation of all the artworks located in the building. Over the course of multiple years package materials were stored for a possible evacuation. While everything was well planned out when the Nazi troops approached Russia Stalin specifically ordered not to start packing since it could be interpreted as a sign of defeat. Though Orbeli still directed the employees to start packaging all valuables to later on evacuate as many of them as possible. Through this decision two full trains were able to leave Leningrad with the Hermitages treasures in July in 1941. More paintings could not be saved due to Nazi troupes closing of the city. Still volunteers continually kept watch on the roof and windows to minimise damages.

Paintings are in general sensitive as canvases or old statues made out of wood are susceptible to breaking in the process. Most of the artworks in museums are also of a considerable size and should be carefully disassembled and packed for transport.

It has to be taken into account that most of the time during wars citizens must leave their cities on short notice, as the troops advance in the terrain. In the situation of the Hermitage Museum a lot of artworks were saved. But they were taken out of their frames, packed quickly and transported in unfavourable conditions.

Handling the destruction of cultural property through the Hague Convention 

The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict entered into force 1956. The convention recognizes that cultural property has suffered great damage during wars. Therefore the guiding principles include the idea that any damage done to cultural property, independent of the lawful owner, is treated as damage to the cultural heritage of humanity. 

How Blockchain could play a role tracing the ownership

When talking about physical artworks, amongst other reasons for misappropriation, war led a lot of people to leave their valuable goods behind, including artworks. Also it is oftentimes stolen by the winning forces. In order to counter these losses, blockchain could constitute a solution, where the ownership of an artwork is stored with proof provided by the original and legitimate owner and which, in the event of having to flee, could later on claim its proprietorship if the artwork is found in an auction anywhere in the world and claim it back.

This registry of artworks on-chain could avoid cases such as the one of Adele Bloch-Bauer to be repeated. We already have the new technologies needed to avoid past mistakes, but we must put them in place. When talking about digital artworks or NFTs, they eliminate these risks as long as their private key or access is stored in two different ways or in any case it is easy to transport either digitally or on paper.

We from Kunst21 oppose the invasion of Ukraine. We have friends and business partners from that country. This war is causing many casualties and refugees leaving their lives behind. We hope that the warfare is soon to be over. In terms of cultural aspects many artistic properties are destroyed and irrecoverable. We can only assure you that our products are carefully stored and its ownership is registered on-chain and therefore can be associated with everyone of our customers.

Kunst21 team

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