Bioethics Blogs

Returning Looted Artworks

Written by Cecile Fabre, April 2015


In 1999, Maria Altman, who had fled Austria in 1938 following the Anschluss with Germany, filed a lawsuit against the Austrian government. Her claim was that five paintings by Gustav Klimt, had been looted by the Nazis from her uncle before falling into the possession of the Austrian authorities, and that these ought to be returned to her as the rightful heir. Two of the paintings included portraits of her aunt. The Austrians initially refused to take her request seriously but eventually gave in after several dramatic legal twists and turns.[1]

This story is now on our cinema screens under the title A Woman in Gold, with Helen Mirren in the starring role. The ending is clearly meant to be regarded as a happy one: after all, Altman does get the painting back. And, generally, many think that stolen or plundered works of art ought to be returned to those from whom they were taken, or their heirs.

I do not think that those legal claims are supported by what I and other cosmopolitans regard as a plausible theory of justice – whereby all individuals, wherever they reside in the world, have rights to the resources needed for a flourishing life, and hold those rights not just against their compatriots but also against well-off distant strangers. At the bar of justice, the well-off are under obligations to do far more than they are currently doing – obligations which they could and should discharge by paying more taxes both on what they currently earn and own and on what they receive from their forebears.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.