Alternative Power: Political economy of cultural property

Friday, February 8th, 2013


Last May, The Scream by Edvard Munch set a record for the most expensive painting sold at auction. The $120 million sale at Sotheby’s in New York illustrated a trend in record prices for artworks at auction and in private sales.[i] At the same time, members of the al Qaeda-linked group Ansar Dine started to target mausoleums of Sufi saints in Timbuktu, Mali, and conflict in Syria continued to compromise cultural heritage with the looting of the well preserved Crusader castle, Krak des Chevaliers.[ii] The purchase of The Scream and the destruction of the historic monuments represent extremes that derive from the perceived value of art and the strategic value of cultural heritage.

As collectors bid up the market value of masterworks, regime forces and rebels in Syria leverage the political clout of cultural property by blaming one another for the destruction.[iii] But do high-value artworks and the targeting of cultural heritage sites have anything in common? While the art market and regional conflict may not seem related, financial interest in masterworks and wanton destruction of historic monuments both reflect the underlying power of art and culture.

The angst imagery of The Scream coincidentally illustrates the worldwide reaction to images of destruction in Mali and Syria. Both the painting and the news photographs evoke emotion, which play a fundamental role in the appreciation of art. At the same time, the high prices paid for individual artworks and the targeting of monuments may represent two extremes in the exploitation of culture. Despite the stark contrast of the growth of the art market and the loss of cultural heritage, the two extremes have a common source in the emotional appeal of art and a psychological connection to culture.

Art communicates cultural ideals by recognizing and informing our sensibilities. Different forms of art have a range of psychological effects and emotional appeal. Architecture intuitively conveys insight into foreign culture, and portable artworks—such as paintings, sculptures, and antiquities—enable transnational appreciation of culture. The insight and appreciation motivate protection of monuments and inspire acquisition of antiquities and fine art. International conventions that protect cultural heritage sites and regulate the trade in cultural artifacts and artworks have followed. The resulting legal leverage of cultural property and the development of a global art market illustrate an emerging political economy of cultural property.

Markets for artworks, from ancient art to contemporary art, have positive and negative effects that intertwine. For example, fascination with foreign cultures inspires collecting of antiquities, but the market for antiquities inspires looting and trafficking. As a result, the trade in artworks has financial and legal implications. Demand from collectors drives an illicit market for antiquities as indicated by billion-dollar estimates for looted Syrian cultural material, and illicit trading gives legal cause for repatriation. [iv] Nations such as Turkey challenge institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for the return of cultural patrimony, and recently, Turkey has reinforced claims against the British Museum by tying unauthorized removal of cultural property to a violation of human rights.[v]

Similarly, wartime plunder creates legal grounds for restitution of private art collections. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, investigations revealed questionable circumstances under which Nazi authorities acquired artworks from Jewish collectors leading up to and during Second World War. As an example, the legally forced restitution of five paintings by Gustav Klimt from the Austrian National Gallery to Maria Altman of Los Angeles made headlines in 2006. Upon return, one of the paintings—Adele Bloch-Bauer I—sold for a reported $135 million, which set a record for the private sale of an individual artwork.[vi] The remarkable financial potential inspires pursuit of restitution, and the consequent risk for collectors creates a market for title insurance.[vii]

The market value of masterworks also inspires the production of forgeries. Major auction houses, such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s, have unknowingly sold forgeries. Once discovered as fakes, such sales cause the unwitting buyer to bring a legal suit against the auction house. For example, in July, a Russian billionaire won a six-year dispute with Christie’s London over a £1.7 million painting, which experts exposed as a forgery.[viii] Sotheby’s has also fallen victim to multimillion-dollar forgery cases. The consequent risk in the art market has given rise to professional indemnity insurance for conservators, dealers, and advisers.[ix]

Destruction and looting of cultural property during armed conflict has legal and financial effects as well as ramifications for security. International conventions protect cultural property of Mali and Syria, and looting in each nation contributes to the worldwide multibillion-dollar illicit trade in ancient art, antiquities, and other cultural material.[x] At The Hague in 1954, the United Nations adopted the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. Syria ratified the 1954 Hague Convention in 1958, and consequently, the director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) urgently reminds the government of the responsibility to protect ancient cities—such as Aleppo—from collateral damage.[xi]

In 1970, UNESCO established the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, and Mali ratified the convention in 1987. In May 2012, the director general of UNESCO called for heightened vigilance in preventing trafficking of cultural artifacts from the region, and the International Criminal Court threatened the Ansar Dine group with legal action for destruction of ancient Islamic monuments.[xii] The events in Mali and Syria come after cases in Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, and Pakistan in which tactical targeting of monuments and trafficking of cultural material compromises regional security and threatens cultural identity.[xiii]

Legal and financial developments, and the ramifications for security, expand the significance of the political economy of cultural property.[xiv] Specifically, the politics of cultural property and economics of the art market indicate a complement to hard and soft power in foreign relations. The source of the power is not the artworks and cultural heritage sites per se but the emotional appeal of art and the role of culture in identity. Antiquities, masterworks, and monuments are one aspect of art, and art is one aspect of culture. As such, markets for artworks and laws for protection of cultural heritage serve as indicators with which to track, and potentially anticipate, the political economy of cultural property in the twenty-first century.

Author’s Biography

Erik Nemeth directs Formerly with the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, Dr. Nemeth serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Art Crime and as a trustee of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art.


[i] Jori Finkel, “Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ goes for $119.9 million at Sotheby’s,” Los Angeles Times, 2 May 2012.

[ii] “UNESCO alarmed at growing threats to cultural heritage in Mali,” Panapress, 6 May 2012,–13-827845-18-lang4-index.html; Albert Aji, “Syria’s cultural treasures latest uprising victim,” Fox News, 1 May 2012, accessed February 19, 2013,
[iii] Souren Melikian, “Rothko Leads a Record Contemporary Art Sale,” New York Times, 9 May 2012; “Syrians Trade Blame for Aleppo Souk Fire,” Ya Libnan, 1 October 2012,
[iv] “Syria’s Stolen Archeological Artifacts Worth US$2 Billion,” Bernama, 15 October 2012,
[v] Jason Farago, “Turkey’s restitution dispute with the Met challenges the ‘universal museum’,” Guardian, 7 October 2012; Dalya Alberge, “Turkey turns to human rights law to reclaim British Museum sculptures,” Guardian, 8 December 2012.
[vi] Carol Vogel, “Lauder Pays $135 Million, a Record, for a Klimt Portrait,” New York Times, 19 June 2006.
[vii] “Art-title insurance: Peace of mind,” Economist, 25 November 2010.
[viii] Nandini Maheshwari, “Russian Oligarch wins £3m from Christie’s for fake painting sale,“ Born Rich, 27 July  2012,
[ix] R K Harrison, “R K Harrison Offers Specialist PI Product for Art Market Professionals,” Insurance Journal, 10 October 2012,
[x] UNESCO, “The Fight against the Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Objects – The 1970 Convention: Past and Future, UNESCO” (Information Kit, UNESCO, Paris: 2011).
[xi] “UNESCO deplores destruction of historic souks in Aleppo,” Jordan News Agency (PETRA), 2 October 2012,
[xii] “Mali: Timbuktu and Tomb of Askia Sites Added to List of World Heritage in Danger,” AllAfrica, 28 June 2012,; “ICC threatens Mali Islamists with war crimes,” Al Jazeera, 2 July 2012.
[xiii] W.L. Rathje, “Why the Taliban are destroying Buddhas,” USA TODAY, 22 March 2001; Raymond W. Baker, Shereem T. Ismael, and Tareq Y. Ismael, eds., Cultural Cleansing in Iraq: Why Museums Were Looted, Libraries Burned and Academics Murdered (New York: Pluto Press, 2010); “Looting spree hits ancient temples,” Herald Sun, 13 May 2012; Huma Yusuf, “A pluralistic past,” Dawn, 8 October 2012; Boshra EL-Guindy, “Archeological site attacks damage nations’ identities,” Guidon, 11 October 2012,
[xiv] Irina Bokova, “Culture in the Cross Hairs,” New York Times, 2 December 2012.