Law and Conversation

August 27, 2010

Thieves, plunderers, and musicians

The Chicago Tribune reports on a happy ending, with the aid of the newspaper’s Problem Solver column, for a violist whose prized instrument was stolen more than ten years ago.  As columnist Jon Yates wrote, Northwestern University law professor Robert Bennett recited blackletter law that a thief cannot convey good title to stolen property.

The old saw, “Possession is nine tenths of ownership,” can trump the law when it comes to repatriation of property stolen decades or centuries ago, as Colin Woodard shows in his article, “The War Over Plunder: Who Owns Art Stolen in War?” from The Quarterly Journal of Military History.  Many treasures are simply of unknown provenance, including many artifacts held by museums:  their origins and creators may be undisputed, but what happened after their creation and the paths they took to get to the museums where they now reside are often murky, if not impossible to ascertain.  One famous example of museum property whose rightful ownership is bitterly disputed is the Elgin Marbles, in the possession of the British Museum since the early 19th century.  You can read more about that controversy here, here, and here.

The stolen viola’s rightful owner spoke movingly in Yates’s article about what her instrument meant to her.  Two other books that illustrate why, to a musician, just any instrument won’t do are Vikram Seth’s “An Equal Music” and Perri Knize’s “Grand Obsession.”

Blog at WordPress.com.