Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Another repatriation row brewing?

In the shadow of the fuss over Gandhi's glasses, the Summer Palace bronzes, and the St Louis/Sakkara mummy mask, another repatriation disute row seems to have been somewhat neglected by the press. Bernadette Merdalors ('Van Gogh's ear to be sold at auction' Artnose), reports that a mummified ear, believed to be the one severed by artist Vincent Van Gogh and recently discovered by the staff of a well-known auction house in a glass jar in the attic of a farmhouse in Provence was recently auctioned in New York, arousing dismay back in Europe:
French auctioneers are furious that the ear has been allowed to leave France . “It is a disgrace,” said Patrick Soigné, a leading French commissaire-priseur. “Vincent’s ear is part of the national patrimony, like the Mona Lisa, the Rosetta Stone, or the cave paintings at Lascaux . It belongs in the Louvre or the Musée d’Orsay.” “This is baloney,” commented Hertz van Rental of the Stedelijk Museum in Rotterdam . “Vincent was born in Holland. The ear is ours.”
The 1970 UNESCO convention does not seem to cover human body parts if they are not from archaeological contexts. Obviously if ownership is to be contested, this is a case that can only be resolved by civilised debate and discussion of the ethical issues rather than invoking international law. But in the absence of proper context, how sure are we that this piece of shrivelled tissue is indeed van Gogh's ear?

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