Sunday, 18 March 2012

Booty, Loot, Plunder & Stolen Goods: Where would we be without them?

There are still children and grandchildren of Holocaust victims successfully claiming back goods (usually art works)stolen by the Nazis. The works have often ended up in some German museum.

Such restitution is justice done and seen to be done.

But such cases may obscure the fact that, if only we had better documentation, we would soon discover that most claims to ownership of significant assets are invalid. At some point, the chain of legitimate exchange and inheritance has been broken by force or fraud.

Of course, most things which are stolen - whether by invading armies or private individuals - have only a short shelf life. When hungry soldiers steal a peasant's crops, they do so to eat them. The peasant may later be able to claim financial compensation. But I doubt that one in a thousand - maybe one in ten thousand - peasants have ever been compensated.

A few things have a long shelf life: land, houses, jewels, art works, books and papers. Around the world, the title to most such things is bad. At some point, the line of succession and exchange was broken by force, whether the force of a common thief or that of an invading army.

But only in a few cases will it be possible to document that the title is bad and in still fewer will it be possible to say who has a better title, except generically: Native Americans and Aborigines as groups have a better claim to own the land of America and Australia than those individuals whose ownership is today upheld by the United States or the Commonwealth (!) of Australia.

In contrast, there are still plenty of Palestinians who can document individually what they have lost. And maybe even quite a few Armenians - which is one reason why Turkey is unwilling to concede the Armenian Genocide claim.

At the other end of the scale, no one living in England knows whether or not they are a descendant of the native populations who lost everything in the Norman Conquest or even in later forcible redistributions. In principle, the Roman Catholic Church could probably document fairly exactly what it lost in Henry VIIIs dissolution of the monasteries and could put together a claim for restitution or compensation, but if it did I doubt anyone would take it seriously. It was all too long ago.

Time does make a difference then. Hang on to stolen property for long enough and eventually everyone concedes that it is yours.

Sometimes there are utilitarian advantages to theft.

Paintings end up being displayed in public galleries which would otherwise gather mould in damp basements or bird shit in draughty attics.

The theft (or dubious disposal) of private or public archives often enough transfers ownership to collectors who will look after the material much better than those who had a title to it.

And then there are Robin Hoods, though not in England, Thank God.

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