The number of artworks that have been stolen since the beginning of history probably goes up into the millions. Artworks may be commonly plundered during times of war, but they are also regularly stolen by house burglars and looters. In fact, many of the more recent art thefts in times of peace involve robberies of museums and private collections.
While it may be easy to say that the rightful owner of these stolen goods should be whoever they were stolen from, the situation is not always so straightforward. Many of these goods have changed hands multiple times and some of these exchanges may not have been legal in the first place. Artworks taken during an earlier era fall particularly into question, because the legality of that time was far different than what we have today. For one, it was rare that every artwork gifted, sold, taken or stolen was documented. It was also uncommon for a thief to keep the looted piece – the artifacts would have been sold on the market shortly after, often without the buyer being aware that they were stolen. This kind of “artifact laundering” would have made it next to impossible to trace the route of an artwork over the course of history.
As such, people who currently possess a piece of art may not know that it was stolen, but rather only recognize it as a family-owned item that has been passed down to the descendants over time. With an online database to aid in the search for stolen art, antiques have been more recently turned up after decades or even centuries of being missing. It is often unknown how these people came to possess the antiques. However, even when the current holders of these antiques are willing to return them to their rightful owners, it can take decades of research to trace the origins of each piece of art. This is mostly because the original owners are long gone and nobody else came to know the history of such an artwork.
Some artworks were stolen multiple times in history. The Guinness World Record for the single most frequently stolen major artwork goes to Rembrandt’s Jacob de Gheyn III. The painting was stolen four times since 1966. It first belonged to the object of its likeness, Jacob de Gheyn III, when he and a friend, Maurits Huygens, commissioned Rembrandt to paint a portrait of each of them in an identical format. The friends inscribed on the back of the paintings that the first one of them to die would receive the painting owned by the other. As the first to die, de Gheyn bequeathed his portrait to Huygens, who outlived his friend only by a year. The portraits remained in the ownership of the Huygens family for probably close to two decades. It is unknown how the portraits came to reside at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, but Jacob de Gheyn III was stolen from the gallery a total of four times, possibly making an easy target due to its unusually miniscule size. It was returned anonymously each time.
Another piece contesting for the Guinness World Records’ title of most frequently stolen artwork is the Ghent Altarpiece. It was involved in thirteen crimes and stolen seven times over six centuries. Since the Altarpiece is made up of twelve separate panels, it became easy for it to be stolen in parts. Four panels ended up at the Berlin Museum, although it is not known if they were legally or illegally acquired. All pieces were eventually returned to Ghent. In this case, it is perhaps straightforward for one to say that the artwork should rightfully belong to Ghent – although that claim would have been contested by Adolf Hitler and Hermann Göring, who both believed they should rightfully have the artifact. However, even today, one panel is still reportedly missing and its whereabouts unknown. The case is going on, but should this panel surface decades or centuries in the future, history may continue in such a way that its ownership may be contested then.
The ownership of stolen antiques has been an issue since the past. In the aftermath of a war, peace treaties would be signed outlining the terms of countries’ agreement with each other. Under such treaties or as a gesture of goodwill, looted art from the country may be returned, while others – usually more valuable items – are kept. One such agreement was the Treaty of Versailles, which was signed in June 1919 at the Palace of Versailles in Paris, following the end of World War I. The Treaty imposed blame for the war on Germany, stating that Germany was responsible for starting the war and should suffer harsh penalties, including the repayment of stolen artifacts. One of the items removed from Germany was the Ghent Altarpiece, and Hitler made obtaining it the center of his mission in his envisioned Führermuseum.
Some pieces of art have been returned to the heirs of the people who originally owned them, such as the Deutsch de la Meurthe drawings, although one of the drawings still lacks a known heir. For artworks whose original owners or inheritors are still around, returning them may be feasible, even if the legitimate owner is debatable. The trouble arises when the artifacts in question belong to a civilization that was completely destroyed, of which there are no known descendants. Some of these artifacts include gold from the Aztec Empire and the goods of the indigenous people of Africa and America.
One notable item whose true owner is near impossible to establish is the Codex Argenteus, also known as the Silver Bible. It was created by the Ostrogoths in the sixth century, but went missing for a thousand years shortly after its creation. Nobody knows where the Silver Bible was during that millennia, but it did resurface at the abbey of Werden and was then brought to Prague. At the time of the 17th century, the city was under the rule of the Holy Roman Empire, which has now gone extinct. The book was taken by the Swedes in 1648, where it caught the particular interest of the Swedish Queen Christina. Until now, the Silver Bible remains in the possession of Sweden, who would state that they have the rightful claim to the artifact as they were the ones out of any existing civilization to possess it for the longest time. Even though the Swedes had come into possession of the Silver Bible through wartime looting, it is difficult to say who they should return it to, as all the other peoples with some claim to the book have been long wiped out.
In the end, the rightful owner of each piece of stolen art largely depends on an individual case-by-case basis. Even then, it is usually not entirely clear with centuries of history between the creation of the art piece and the current times. Many valuable artworks have been the subject of long-time disputes between people, families and even countries.